Thursday, December 04, 2008

See also: the drawing board, back to.

Can't sleep. Thought, eh, maybe I'll blog.

Actually I think I'm just hungry and/or went over my threshold for caffeine tolerance. I guess I should add green tea to my list of "none after 7 pm".

However, the 3 AM last homemade cookie? That I can do.

So my experiments today did not work. But hey, at least I know what went wrong because I did CONTROLS. So I don't mind. Because tomorrow I can try again.

Yes, today was one of those days when I am glomming onto the tiny glimmer of actual SCIENCE because the rest of the day was pure, unadulterated bullshit.

First, I had to listen to the 'campus expert' on a subject explain a technique to me. Basically the protocol is:

a) have too much money
b) buy anything and everything you need pre-made, instead of actually knowing how to do it yourself.

Hmph. Thanks. And you're the expert, huh? What are we, industry now? Aren't we supposed to understand how these things work in academia well enough to do it ourselves for a fraction of the price?

Or is that just another one of my delusions?

And I had to listen to - I know, this will shock you! - a grad student who does not understand controls. And his advisor who, so far as I can tell, does not understand how to train anyone.

My favorite part is how advisors blame the students, as if it's not in any way their job to provide training (or at least foist these clueless students off on postdocs who are capable of training a grad student). In this particular case, I'm pretty sure the student is clueless and/or lazy, but I still don't blame the student for not knowing. When are you supposed to learn these things if no one is teaching you?

I don't know about you, but I learned how to do controls IN LAB. I did not learn about controls in class.

.... Um, nope, not in any class.


And finally. I had to listen to one of the ultimate White Guys telling another White Guy grad student how to go about getting a postdoc position to be successful in his career.

Okay, so are you ready? Here goes:

Find an NAS HHMI* advisor and do whatever it takes to get the recommendation letter.

Ta da! That's the advice. This is science, folks. This is THE 'mentoring.'

The really frightening part of this story was that this same guy said when he gets CVs of people who are 20 years out of school applying for various upper-level positions, he still looks at WHERE they did their PhD and postdoc. WITH WHOM.

Because he thinks that connotes quality better than any other factor.

Yes, and. This particular White Guy is young enough that he will be around giving this wonderful advice to several more generations of grad students to come.

Hearing things like this I think, who am I kidding?

According to him, I should have quit after grad school, because I didn't have a C/N/S paper from the lab of a Famous White Guy from my thesis work. Then maybe I shouldn't have gotten those postdoc fellowships after all? They should have just told me "thanks, take a hike!"? YOU'LL NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH??

So what I got from this is, not only are generations of grad students being told the exact OPPOSITE of what I would say, even if I had my own lab, clearly there are still going to be PIs who would not want to send their own grad students to do a postdoc with me, as a junior, female, non-acronymed professor.

Not that I'm sure I could stomach having any postdocs of my own, since it would mean propagating this "system" that I hate. I guess I could still try to be the ultimate PI I've always wanted to be, and actually, you know, help my postdocs get jobs and papers and stuff.

Ha ha ha.

In other news, I started reading a book called "From Sabotage to Success" by Sheri O. Zampelli. I think it's going to tell me how to get out of my negative rut. Or something. So far it's really good, actually.

And eventually I hope I will be able to get some more sleep. This is the second night this week I had trouble sleeping. Must be all the languishing.

*(and therefore, most likely MALE)

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At 4:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said... work at the worst place ever. how did you manage to be surrounded by so many slimy careerist ignorant fucks?
i mean i've ran into that kind of people but never so many at once...

At 7:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Find an NAS HHMI* advisor and do whatever it takes to get the recommendation letter. "

That is great advice to join one particular club in science. The club of the "anointed ones". I'd hate to see what "whatever it takes" really means though.

For those of us who are not anointed, the road is tougher and it requires things like being at an institution that is not in the top 10 and publishing in journals with impact factors in the high single digits most of the time. Most of us find ourselves in this group.

Amazingly, one can have a productive career doing this and actually make a reasonable contribution to science. In fact, you could argue that most of the "heavy lifting" that really moves science forward is done by folks in the non-anointed group.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous LMH said...

SO, I'm a new reader of this blog. Is your area of study not one that has industry as an option? I'm a chemistry graduate student, and I have a very hard time with the insular academic culture - it's easy to become delusional here, and finding role models is hard for me - I'm a woman from a blue collar background at a major research university. I'm also in therapy, also having a hard time figuring out what I want out of my life. I have a question for you.

Why do you want to be a professor? Isn't there another way to do good science and have less bullshit/more money/better life? I'm heading to industry (if I can find a job in this recession) and I know (because of experience) that it can be a place of good science and at least less bullshit.

I wish you good luck. You are not alone.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

I learnt to do controls in class, what the heck kind of stats class or field methods class or project prep class or How to do Science class whatever you call the class that prepares you for your independent project in biological science doesn't cover controls???

And I never took any master's level classes, this was in undergrad (UK system, went straight to PhD).

I learned to APPLY most of these ideas in the lab, at the bench, but we'd certainly covered them. No wonder you get fed up with training students if they don't even know what one of those is!

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your blog. Your posts sound familiar to me, maybe because I'm in the middle of the night trying to get the last results of my simulations for a talk that is coming too fast... ? And I'm only a PhD student ;-) Anyway, hope you'll get some sleep and be in the good mood tomorrow to enjoy science once again !

At 10:00 AM, Anonymous figuring-it-out said...

re: buying things pre-made
yeah we're seeing more of that in our area of biology ... more and more work is outsourced ... from cloning genes to microarray work, etc. everything is becoming more high throughput and "efficient". i understand the need for efficiency and the need to answer a question asap before your competitors do, but what happened to actually doing science?

re: pedigree as the determining factor
makes you wanna puke eh. good training, productivity, the ability to pose questions and scientific merit stand for nothing when measured against pedigree. it makes me feel like a second class citizen sometimes when people put so much emphasis on pedigree. speaking of second class citizens, that's pretty much what some of the tenured faculty at UTMB said ... if they didn't have current grant funding (despite having procured grants in the past) they were treated like second class citizens and fired in a "reduction in force" effort. i'm sure some would say good riddance to profs who weren't pulling in grants anyway, but i think it's cause we've partly lost the whole point of doing science. don't get me wrong, i understand that science is publicly funded (mainly) and that we are accountable to the greater public to do science that will benefit society - i get that. but what about doing science for the sake of science... everything is driven by the mighty dollar. what can you sell me / what can you give me so that i can sell it ...
damn i seem to have gotten a bit off tangent there.

i hope you're getting more sleep YFS :) exercise before bed works for me, or tai chi

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when I was still in grad school having ambitions to go into academic science, I got (or was given) books on careerism in science. Examples are

"A PhD Is Not Enough: A Guide To Survival In Science" by Peter J. Feibelman

"Winning the Games Scientists Play" by Carl Sindermann

(still available on amazon)

Have you read these or similar books? if you're in the mood for a laugh they might be worth a read. Or for new students/postdocs who want to understand the status quo, those books are good to read.

Anyway, I had read these books as a young hardworking ambitious grad student and taken the advice to heart. How naive I was to actually believe it. It wasn't until I was halfway through my postdoc that I realized these books are outdated because they were written when academic science was a very different landscape. Very few people around me were actually succeeding according to the model presented in such books.

Recently I found these books in my basement again, and as I was flipping through them with the updated perspective of someone who is now many years past the PhD and STILL struggling to establish a career despite having by now built up a "typically competitive CV", I practically laughed out loud at how untrue so much of the published career advice is. I'm sure the model still works for at least some successful people, including those who support and uphold the status quo like the people you have blogged about, but from what I see it fails for the majority of young scientists AND there are increasing numbers of young scientists who are desperately forging or trying to forge new paths to a career that are different from the conventional path. I guess time will tell if we succeed and if there will be a new "model" or at least more than one accepted path on how to be successful in a scientific career.

Now I think it is blogs like yours that give far better career advice to grad students contemplating careers in academic science. (best advice is to choose a different career)... I wish blogs like this were available back when I was a grad student, it could have altered some major life decisions. Or maybe there already blogs like yours but I didn't know about them at the time. (Possibly back then there weren't so many blogs on the internet in general)

At 9:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am getting Sabotage to Succes tomorrow... I have never been so close to quitting science as I am this week. A year into my postdoc and wondering whether this has been the mistake of my life. I just have no clue what else to do. I hate hate hate benchwork - love writing and am perfectly fine coaching and helping others. I have so had it.

At 12:04 AM, Blogger Amanda said...

I'm so glad to know there is someone else who feels the way I do about the "old boys club" and lineage factor vs Quality Research. Ugh!

At 6:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

figuring-it-out: that's pretty much what some of the tenured faculty at UTMB said ... if they didn't have current grant funding (despite having procured grants in the past) they were treated like second class citizens and fired in a "reduction in force" effort.

I'm a bit confused - you say they are tenured faculty yet if they lose their grant funding they get RIF'ed?? That's more like a soft money position like non-tenure track.

I'm in a soft money position in a national lab and facing a very real impending RIF as a gap in my grant funding is coming up and other grant renewals that were expected, didn't happen. I hate this kind of soft-money position because funding comes and goes in cycles which is completely normal as everyone knows yet as a soft-money researcher you can never get caught in between cycles or you're out. and being out means you're no longer in a position to get new grants or even ride out the tide because you're stripped of your position/title/access and you become a non-entitity (i.e. the minute your money runs out it means your institution can't justify keeping you on for even a day longer no matter your previous track record and likely future funding prospects). so it doens't help if your next grant funding will come in 3 months from now, you're still out if there's any gap which is the position I'm in.

At 10:09 PM, Anonymous figuring-it-out said...

hey Anonymous,

the article (from The Scientist) says that 83 were tenured and 44 were non-tenure track researchers (see below). i think it's totally absurd that a researcher is stigmatized as soon as grant funding runs out despite having shown past productivity or procurement of future funding. sigh. makes me wonder if i could make it in TT cause the constant worrying would probably kill me. then again, i've never been exposed to industry so i have no real idea about what that could be like other than accounts that i've read from people posting on these blogs.

i am crossing my fingers for you.

(in case that link doesn't open for you i'll paste it here ... hopefully the comment form will allow me to paste it in it's entirety... here goes:)

"Fired Faculty Speak Out
by Elie Dolgin

Tenured professors who were given the pink slip last week by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston said they felt "shocked" and "betrayed" by the action, and have been given little rationale for why they were singled out, and little direction on what to do until they leave.

In total, the medical school fired more than 3,000 people -- around one-third of its total staff, including 83 tenured and tenure track faculty and 44 non-tenure track researchers -- after Hurricane Ike tore through the campus in September.

Tenured and tenure-track professors who were fired will be paid though August. Until then, however, whether they keep working or not to finish up research projects or teaching obligations is between the fired researcher and their department head, according to William New, UTMB's associate dean for research administration.

Associate professor Malcolm Brodwick worked at UTMB for 35 years before being sacked last week. Although he doesn't have his own research grant at the moment, he is actively engaged in collaborative biophysics research and is the course director for the cardiovascular/pulmonary graduate program. That's why, when he heard there were going to be layoffs, "I thought that I was going to be immune," he told The Scientist.

His department chair called him into his office last Monday (Nov. 24) to tell him the bad news. Around 10 people from his department -- neuroscience and cell biology -- were fired under the so-called "reduction in force" (RIF), but Brodwick was the first to know because his department chair told everyone in alphabetical order. "I was a little shocked when I learned I was RIFed," he said. "I wasn't prepared."

Brodwick's department chair, Henry Epstein, told him there were external guidelines for choosing who was given the boot, but these directives have never been made public, Brodwick said. "I think [I was fired] because I'm 64 and close to retirement."

Epstein declined to comment about the specific guidelines, saying only: "It was a very careful, thoughtful process. It wasn't done overnight."

Responding to Brodwick's allegation and to requests for the criteria used in choosing faculty in the layoffs, UTMB spokesperson Raul Reyes sent The Scientist the following statement: "Faculty decisions were made in accordance with the UT System Regents Rules, which require committee review for the elimination of academic programs and positions. The rules specify the factors to consider, which include academic qualifications and talents, the needs of the programs, past academic performance and potential future contributions. Tenure was considered only if two or more individuals were equally qualified."

Brodwick said he now plans to fulfill his teaching obligations through mid-January, and then he will start looking for new work. In the meantime, however, Brodwick said he feels "like a leper, a pariah on campus. I'm not 100% a faculty member."

Nancy Wills -- a tenured professor also in the department neuroscience and cell biology, a member of the faculty senate, and the director of UTMB's systems physiology graduate course -- has had a tough year. After a financially difficult divorce, two salary cuts, a family illness, the loss of her home in the hurricane, and a major car accident, she learned of her termination in an email.

Wills, 59, said she plans to retire when her contract runs out in August. Despite years of grant funding, including being one of last year's grant recipients from the blindness-research foundation Hope For Vision, her highest salary was at the lowest quartile for her field, and she in unsure how she'll make ends meet.

"Everyone is so fearful," Kay Sandor, a tenured associate professor of nursing, told The Scientist. "Whether we speak or not, our jobs are at risk."

Sandor was not fired last week, but was one of the co-claimants -- along with the Texas Faculty Association, a local merchant, and a retired UTMB employee -- who filed a lawsuit Tuesday (Dec. 2) against University of Texas officials for breaching the Texas Open Meetings Act. "I took a big risk," she said, "[but] I think it's important that at least one faculty person was in that suit."

Mary Kanz, an associate professor of pathology who has worked at UTMB since 1979, realized she was being fired "as soon as my chairperson's secretary called and said he needed to speak with me," she told The Scientist.

Kanz's meeting with her department chair consisted of three sentences: One, she was told her faculty position "no longer existed." Two, she'd continue to be paid through August, but was expected to perform her regular duties. Three, "I want to thank you for your contributions to this department," Kanz recalled.

Kanz's grant funding ran out in January 2007, and she's mostly been teaching since then. "If you don't have grant funding, you're basically considered a second-class citizen," she said.

At 65, she said she plans to retire when her contract runs out. "I had hoped to have one more year to put more money in my savings account, but that won't be happening now."

Another newly out-of-work faculty member, a tenured associate professor and director of a graduate program who asked to remain anonymous, told The Scientist that she felt "bitter and betrayed and thrown away."

"I kind of feel like I've spent most of my career in service to UTMB," she said, noting that like many of the other faculty fired, she does a lot of teaching and administrative work. "It's a horrible feeling."

The Texas Faculty Association is asking fired faculty members who wish to appeal the termination decision to contact them. Under of the University of Texas Board of Regents rule 31003, they have 30 days from the date they were first notified of the layoff to do so."

At 10:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I go to a top 10 program in chemistry, and by looking at where the faculty members have trained, it does appear that pedigree is a necessity. I don't think there is a single professor without at least one super famous advisor either in their graduate or postdoc career (Karplus, Dervan, Schreiber, Buchwald, Bergman, Grubbs, CT Walsh, Lippard, Jacobsen, Hofmann, etc).

It's really a game where the winners are already set. Sad but true.


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