Monday, February 25, 2008

The two-body problem (youngfuturefemalescientist's question)

In response to a comment on the previous post-

There are lots of ways to answer this.

The shortest answer may not be the right one, but here it is:

My gut says your bf should follow you. I say this because I have a friend who was in a similar situation, bf followed her and worked as a tech, got a Cell paper and got into the U that he wanted.

Put another way, there are a lot more potential bf's out there than chances to get into the grad school of your dreams. If he's not able to see that, you should upgrade. You can replace him a lot more easily than you can get a do-over on this choice.

On the other hand, it sounds like the two of you went about this the wrong way?

If you had done it the right way, the two of you would have applied only to schools in cluster areas, e.g towns that have at least two, if not three or four schools in close proximity.

That way, if you're an upper echelon candidate (better grades/GREs? maybe a publication or few?) and he's more of an average candidate, at least on paper, you would have had more options in the same location, and none of this headache.

Maybe his field is more competitive, or there are fewer places that have the kind of program he wants.

Either way, from what you wrote, I'm hearing that he's limiting you, not that you're limiting him.

Anyway I guess I thought everybody knew the cluster-town approach is the best and easiest way to deal with the whole two-body problem? Is that not common knowledge now?


The longer answers are below. Given what your options are now, you have to break it down and play out the possible scenarios.

Scenario 1. You follow him.

1A. Things go well.

Hooray! Now you're a rockstar in a small pond, as it were.

Will this hurt you in the long run? Nope. Not one bit. It's MUCH more important to get Cell papers than it is where you got your degree.

Caveat 1: it's harder to be a rockstar at a place with less resources (that includes options for good advisors/famous well-connected advisors).

Caveat 2: it's harder to be a rockstar if you're bored or otherwise unhappy.

Note that I say "harder" but it could just as easily be "MUCH harder" or "nearly impossible".

There is no way to know in your particular case, until you try.

1B. Things go badly.

Boo! You hate it! The school sucks!

Worst case scenario: you quit science because of it (don't laugh, it happens a lot).
You resent him. You resent yourself for following him.

Best case scenario: you stick it out, but you're not a rockstar. The two of you stay together and your personal life is great, but you always wonder if you would have been happier at the other place.

Somewhere in between: you're miserable enough that you transfer to the other school and have some kind of long-distance thing to hold your personal life together (see below).

Scenario 2. He follows you.

Scenario 2A. Things go well.

You are a rockstar among rockstars. You are working your butt off, but you love, and you look down the hall and see an endless parade of doors opening before you.

Your bf is happy enough working, and eventually gets into school. He's now a year or two behind you and will take longer to graduate unless a PhD in his field is faster than in yours.

(And then your next move, assuming you both want to have careers, will be just as confusing and difficult as this one. It could be worse if you're even more asynchronous, depending on whether he also wants a postdoc-requiring type of career.)

On the other hand, he might not be all that happy. He might resent you. He might be jealous of your success. He might be threatened by it. He might quit science. You still might break up.

The good news: You'll get your degree and your chance at being a rock star, and you'll have that whether your personal life with him is good, or not.

The other good news: There's plenty more guys to choose from. Upgrade!

Scenario 2B. Things go badly.

Contrary to popular belief, Big-Name U is not utopia. You hate it.

You're a small fish in a big pond full of rockstars.

BF is miserable, and you feel guilty and/or angry at yourself and at him.

The good news: If you push through, you'll get a degree with a little bit of "pedi" in front of it.

This will help you slightly, especially if your publications turn out to be less than stellar. But then the pressure will be on to do a really good postdoc if you don't want to give up your rockstar dreams. Having a PhD from a "good" school alone will not open all the doors for you.

The person who commented (somewhat snidely) about having the right boss, has a good point. There are all kinds of advisors at all kinds of schools. Unfortunately you don't really know until you do your rotations, and even then sometimes it's hard to tell what lab will be a good fit.

But which lab matters a lot more than the school, and the lab might move. Make sure that, before you make any decisions, you ask your potential future advisors point-blank if they plan to stay at Big-Name U forever. You might be surprised to learn that labs move all the time.

All your planning might be moot if he follows you, and then your lab moves!

Scenario 3. You break up and go your separate ways.

It might not seem like it could ever happen, but note what you said:

You're very committed to him. That's what you said.

You didn't say, "We're very committed"

You didn't say, "He has offered to follow me, because he knows it is harder for women in science so I have to take every advantage I'm offered"

Or anything like that.

Did he?

But I digress.

Many of my friends, and myself included, tried to do a long-distance thing with our college sweethearts.

We all failed. Miserably.

Trust me when I tell you that in every story like this, the first year of grad school was a bit of a blur, starting with long phone calls and exhausting visits, followed by the agonizing decision to break up, followed by crying a lot, and finally ending in the inevitable rebound dating new people at the new place.

Ugh, rebound dating. Very distracting. Not good for lab productivity!

But seriously though, I have one friend who is doing a long-distance thing right now, and a few others who carried them on for quite a while, but in no case did it work out in the magical fairy-tale way they had hoped. So far. We can still hope it will work out for them.

But I personally do not recommend the long-distance option, and you don't sound like you would consider it seriously.

But it is an option.

I guess my question is, if you're this ambitious, why are you even considering following this guy to a school you didn't like?

Why? I kind of don't get it. I mean, I get it. I really do. But you should seriously talk about the possibility of him following you. It sounds like he wouldn't mind going to Big-Name U, if he can get in.

I guess what I don't see is why you should compromise your dreams to make up for his (potentially temporary) under-achievement?

My very very short advice: stay away from a school you visited and didn't like!

At. All. Costs.

(fyi, you do sound a little bit conceited in some of your word choices, but the fact that you're even considering following him makes me think you don't have complete confidence about your abilities or more importantly, your relationship.)

Good luck and let us know what you decide.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008


Received email reminder regarding sexual harassment training renewal for university.

Potential punishment: they will notify the chair of the department.

The chair is a notorious sexual harasser who left his wife because he was sleeping with his postdoc.

Do I care if I am non-compliant????!!! They don't care if I am harassed!

Have lots of evil ideas about this. Mostly hoping something heavy will fall on this guy, a la Bugs Bunny episode, and they will be distracted by that.

Cue the anvil chorus episode.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Career Myths about Grad School and Postdocs

Today I'm thinking about some things I used to think, and some things I know are still common beliefs about science. All of them can be dangerous assumptions, to differing degrees.

1. Appearances don't matter as much in science.

One of the things that attracted me to science was the false belief that it was more about putting in an honest day's work for a good cause than anything else, and that smart people didn't care what you wear or whether you're a minority or not.

Boy was that wrong!

Looking back, I got this impression based on working in the lab, down in the trenches, as it were. I liked the uniform of jeans and a t-shirt.

It never really occurred to me until relatively recently, but I've blogged about it a lot: to get from the trenches to the office, some people will judge you based on totally irrelevant criteria.

I knew this was true in other jobs. I just didn't think it would matter as much in science.

2. A PhD automatically means people without a PhD will respect your opinion more than they would have before you got the PhD.

When I had already been a postdoc for a while, I found myself in a sticky situation with a technician who just would not listen to anything I said.

Once upon a time, I looked up to the technicians. Many of them had more experience than I did, and some were immeasurably helpful to me.

I've always believed that, in terms of day-to-day things in the lab, a PhD just means you've logged a certain number of years at the bench. And experience, so far as I can tell, reigns supreme at the bench. And you never really know how much experience anyone has until you work with them.

Appearances, even in science, can be deceiving.

I didn't expect him to just take my word for anything, I would patiently try to explain my reasoning, but he just refused to listen.

Looking back, I think things were fine until he found out I had a PhD.

I've run into this a lot. People treat you a certain way when they assume you are a grad student, and they treat you differently from the moment they find out that you are not.

In retrospect, this was a horrible example of exactly the kind of sexism I have always tried to avoid, because I literally could not get my work done.

The PI was unreceptive. On the other hand, I never really spelled it out because I sensed that it would get me in trouble AND do nothing to improve the situation. Maybe I was wrong about that, but there's no way to know. And these things do have a statute of limitations.

I was thinking about this because someone I hadn't seen in a long time was asking me how my work was going since last we met.

I was thinking back over the setbacks I've had this year, large and small.

This last year was crippled with mostly small setbacks, but several of them could be traced to the same couple of sources. But there were at least a couple of large setbacks. In at least one case I lost a lot of time, but there was nothing I could have done differently.

But I'm not sure there was anything I could have done to make things turn out differently with this guy.

The biggest problem was that it took me a while to figure out if this guy was just weird. You know how some people in labs are just argumentative. I know someone who is like this, but it's how he behaves with everyone, no matter if you're young or old or tall or short or male or female or any color of the rainbow. That's just how he is.

And for a while there were no other women around, so I couldn't help wondering if it was really just me, or if it was actually because I was a woman.

The worst kind of woman. A woman with a PhD.

3. Sexism used to be worse, so women who complain about it now are just ungrateful and negative.

Maybe it's actually worse to be aware of sexism. That's certainly the message I've gotten from talking with older women faculty, who were either born with blinders on and apparently never took them off, or cultivated a kind of denial that I just can't muster.

It's like the conversation over at Jenny F. Scientist about whether outright falsification is worse, or not as bad, as cherry-picking from non-robust data.

The argument is that totally false data is much easier to identify than data that has been 'massaged.' By this reasoning, cherry-picking or massaging data is much more insidious, and much more dangerous, because it's a much bigger waste of everyone's time.

So while it might seem intuitive that blatant sexism is worse than subtle sexism, I don't think that's really the case anymore. Everyone agrees that blatant sexism is bad, and most people will speak out against it.

The problem with subtle sexism is that it's not minor. Passive aggression can be just as destructive as overt aggression. But it's much harder to prove.

Seems to me this is like the cherry-picking. Everyone's first inclination, when they can't be sure otherwise, is to blame themselves. And then we end up in situations like the one I just described, where you miss the crucial moment to do anything about it.

4. Faculty have not only personal experience, but also lots of ideas about what you should learn in grad school and as a postdoc.

False, false, and false!

For a while now in science, the gradual creeping increase of time in grad school and postdoc has been widening the generation gap.

But I had the unusual experience recently of hearing someone with an MD talking about what should be taught in grad school.

This same person was telling students to finish their PhD just because it would be useful.

I'm sorry, but what the hell would you know about it???

Similarly, I noticed pretty early in my postdoc that most older PIs have no concept whatsoever of what it's like for us as postdocs now. Most of them did a postdoc that lasted a maximum of two years, and then they got a job.

The end! Ta da! Wouldn't that be nice??

Again, if you haven't ever been through it, how much could you really know?

And yet, these are the people in charge (you know, the ones I'm always ranting about).

Worse than that, I heard a PI recently exhorting grad students to do a postdoc, but when asked about what exactly should be learned in a postdoc position, this PI had no idea how to respond.

(Here's a hint: if you're a PI, you should know the answer to this!)

5. A PhD is a useful jumping-off point for many careers, so it's a degree worth getting, even if you realize early in grad school that you're miserable.

This was probably true when grad school was less than 5 or 6 years. It may still be true in the UK and some European countries where grad school is ~ 3 years max.

But I don't really think it's true anymore, or good advice at all.

I mean, sure, if you're miserable and more than halfway done, you should probably finish. But isn't that true for most endeavors?

But if you know before you take your qualifying exams that you hate it?

Get out.

And whatever you do, DO NOT go to grad school to figure out what you want to do.

Figure it out first.

Along those lines, I'm starting to wonder if we shouldn't be requiring students to go out and work for a few years before grad school.

I sincerely doubt that graduate programs could get away with the same kinds of abuse if students knew a little more about how much better it could be, and demanded it.

But that's just one theory.

On the flip slide, I've noticed a disturbing trend among my friends who worked before grad school: they tend to want to just put their head down, do their work, and get back out of academia as fast as possible.

I think this is bad because these kinds of students are not invested in giving back as they go along. I don't like the idea of grad school as a purely selfish undertaking to get a degree. I think this really misses the point.

If you just want to pay your dues and get your degree, get an MBA or a JD.

If you can see that things need to be better, but you're not willing to say it, please go away. We already have enough people like you.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I remember first hearing the word dichotomy in college and thinking it was a wonderful way to discuss a concept I never had a word for. Since I've been thinking about internal conflicts this week, it seems fitting.

This morning The Today Show made me keep the tv on to hear this story about a kid who wants to cure his own rare form of cancer .

This story is very inspiring. I especially love the part when the interviewer is sitting with him in the lab and says something like, "Wow, it seems like such a time-consuming process, such an arduous task?! But this is cancer research?!"

That made me laugh. Here's to toiling in obscurity!

This kid is obviously motivated. He and his mom started a research foundation, and they obviously really care about getting something done.

This is literally research with life-or-death consequences.

And I thought, Gee, maybe I should be working with people like this?

Instead of the people I work with now, who are only in it to try to beat the rest of the ants to the top of the anthill.

I was thinking about how Lance Armstrong set such a good example with his own foundation, and how this is starting to become more of a trend.

I like that patient advocacy is getting more publicity.

The dichotomy is this: no matter how wonderful the funding intentions, the research is only as good as the people who choose which projects to fund.

I've met a couple of Armstrong fellows, and it just makes me wonder what kinds of applications these private foundations get?

The other dichotomy: I want this kid to succeed in curing his own cancer, I really do.

But I think it's unlikely that it will happen fast enough to help him (the average survival time with chordoma is 7 years).

Cynically, I think that if it's like everything else in research, people will claim their work is relevant to chordoma just to get the money.

They're not going to be honest with this kid and his mom when they talk about the expected rate of success for their proposals.

Part of what got me thinking about this was the dichotomy mentioned in this week's Nature about how the Nazis funded medical research.

On the one hand, lots of research came to a screeching halt because of the Nazis. Many researchers left Germany, or were forced out, or killed.

On the other hand, lots of researchers tweaked their research just enough to make it sound appealing to the Nazis, and took the money.

To me, this is just an extreme example of what goes on here and now. Everybody looks to see what's getting funded, and then tweaks their research programs and proposals to go where the money is.

The capitalists among you will say, "Well yeah, that's the point. How else are we supposed to attract researchers to work on the areas we think are important?"

Speaking of capitalism, I was talking about this the other day with a friend who wants to quit academia and start a company, and why that seems more appealing. The logic goes like this:

NIH, PIs and universities all suck at managing research money. There's a ton of waste.

We were talking about how much more could get done if anyone actually cared.

Hence the question, if it were really all life-or-death, would it be different?

We don't train people to manage money and employees when we train them to work at a bench, but it should be part of the training.

At the end of the day, when you get to the top of the anthill, it's the most important part of your job.

The ants at the top don't seem to know the first thing about how to do it.

But being a double-major in economics might not help you, because the normal rules of economics do not apply in research.

In other words, academic research dollars are monopoly money. They're not good for anything outside of research. It's not a free market.

You can't invest grant money. You don't even have that much choice about what you can buy.

You can't haggle over prices. There's not enough competition to drive research supply costs down. Sure, some things have gotten cheaper, like pipette tips and sequencing.

But if you want to buy an HPLC or a microscope? Forget it. You're lucky if the thing you want is made by more than one company.

And at most universities, if you made the mistake of hiring somebody awful, you can't even fire them.

There's no system of accountability, and nobody can figure out how to start one.

In contrast, if you start your own company, you manage the money, you hire and you fire. How you want, who you want, when you want.

Sounds pretty good, right?

It's not that simple, of course. Even if I wanted to work with a private foundation, I would still need an academic appointment somewhere, because to actually do research, you need infrastructure.

Infrastructure is expensive.

Just ask my friend who works at a startup, who is still begging and borrowing things from us at the university.

It's a strange ecology, this place with the funding agencies feeding the companies and the universities, and the universities feeding the companies, and the companies feeding the universities. It seems very unstable right now. Even as some people are telling me to "go to industry", I know there aren't that many jobs in industry, either.

It has to evolve, or collapse.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Depression & deja vu.

I was pretty depressed this morning. I don't really know why. Nothing in particular has happened in the last week or so to put me in a worse mood. I am waiting on a few things, and I hate waiting. But that's a ridiculous reason to be in a bad mood.

Right now I am debating what to do. I can sit here, in the comfort of my unusually quiet house, and do some actual work on my computer. Maybe it will make me feel better to get something done.

Or I can go to lab and do something, and go to a seminar that I'm pretty sure will piss me off. The thing in lab can wait until tomorrow. The seminar might be interesting, and I might get some points for face time if I run into the right people. But all of that is very unlikely to cheer me up. It is more likely to make me feel worse.

So that is my conflict today. Do what I am "supposed" to do, and act normal, or do what I am not "supposed" to do and actually get more work done, and maybe feel better (but also a little bit guilty)?

I have this conflict a lot. I should be over it by now. I realize that nobody cares one bit if I show up to lab on any given day, so long as I get my work done. And they don't even care about that. I am the only one who cares whether I get any work done.

For a while now, I've had the equivalent of experimental blue balls (crude, I know, but I can't think of a better metaphor right now). I can't get any momentum going. I get excited about a project, and then there are all these obstacles to actually getting the answer, and most of them are stupid little things.

It's like trying to walk across a floor covered with toys. You don't really want to step on the toys and break them, but it hurts your feet if you accidentally land on one, and you just want to reach down and sweep them all out of the way.

It's not exactly a minefield. But it's not a relaxing walk in the park, either.

In the past, when I got frustrated by waiting, I would start something new. There are other experiments I could do.

But everything I need to do is time-dependent, and not in a way I can completely control.

So I could start something now, because this week I have time to kill. But it always turns out that everything is ready at the same time, whether I plan it that way or not.

And when that happens, it's impossible to get everything to work correctly, because it turns into a game of juggling. I am okay at juggling. But lately I am miserable because I need a few of these things to be perfect.

I really hate needing for anything to be perfect. Nothing is ever perfect.

I always say this is why I got a PhD instead of an MD. In research, if things aren't perfect, at least nobody dies. And you can usually try again.

But I need these things to be pretty close to perfect. And I am running out of time.

So I'm trying to be more focused. And I hate it.

Meanwhile, I am having a bizarrely strong sense of deja vu the last couple of days. I find myself saying things I could swear I've already said, and seeing things that I think I've seen before.

I keep thinking about the scene where Neo sees a black cat in the Matrix, right before something really bad happens.

I do feel like I'm caught in a loop. My current situation is very similar to something that happened before. And while I'm determined not to make the same mistake again, I still feel like anything I do will not turn out how I want it to.

I'm pretty sure at this point that I want to break out of this loop. But I also know that I can't do it just yet. It's like I'm trying to jump out of a centrifuge. If I time it right, the force will throw me into the right trajectory. Meanwhile I am being crushed by the force that is pulling me around in circles, and down.

Anyway I feel a little better just writing this. It is silly how that works.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Winning your battles vs. Losing yourself

On to the next self-help book, which is a woman's guide for negotiating.

There is an important topic. But I really don't like the book.

Keep in mind, this is not a book of Feminist-Friendly Negotiating Skills. Quite the opposite. I realized this when I read the beginning, which was a while ago, and at the time I was pretty busy. So I stopped.

I stopped because pretty early in the book, they said that rather than confronting men at work, women would do better to remind them gently and repeatedly until they come around.

In other words, they said we should nag. Nag, nag, nag.

I've tried nagging. Sometimes it works. But it really wears me out. If that's what I'm supposed to do to succeed at work, I'll never make it.

But since I've read almost everything in my house, I thought I would pick up this book again and just see what else they said. Much as I don't like the content, I find it interesting how they spell it out. For example, they never actually use the word "nag", but that is exactly what they're telling us to do.

So I just got to a part in the book where they give an example of a woman getting what she wants.

This woman wanted to go to a professional school. Her father wanted her to get married and have children.

Instead of confronting him on the issue of whether she wanted to ever have children vs. wanting to have a career, she persuaded him that going to school would help her make a living until she found a husband.

She got what she wanted, and her father never knew that he was being a sexist bastard.

Oops. That's not exactly how the book tells it. They just say, look this woman got to go to school even though her father said no.

I was discussing this with a friend who said, well that's just picking your battles.

I have problems using tactics like this. I might win the battle, but then I find I haven't done anything to stop the war. In other words, if you let people go on making assumptions about what you want, you're going to end up fighting the same battles over and over.

Maybe you can't really ever change anyone's beliefs. If this woman's father really believes the place of women is to have children, maybe it's impossible for her to change his mind.

But if you don't even try? And you let him go on thinking he's right-?

This book consistently tells women to use tactics of manipulation.

Another approach they espouse is to get men to think your idea was their idea, and therefore approve it when they would otherwise say no.

And here again, I think this is a very dangerous strategy to use in the workplace.

You might win the immediate battle, but you'll never move up. You're guaranteeing that this guy will take credit for your ideas, and in my experience, chances are very good that he'll never make sure you get the credit you deserve.

For example, I have a friend who works in a lab with a really sexist PI. He is the worst kind, because he thinks he's not sexist. Most people who know him outside the lab would say he was not sexist. He doesn't make ridiculous comments about how women should just stay home and have babies. He's a modern sexist: he just doesn't want to work with women unless he feels that he has complete control.

My friend figured out that, if she wants anything, she has to ask a guy in her lab to propose it to the PI. And then the answer is always yes. It doesn't matter what it is. The pattern is consistent: if she proposes it herself, the answer is always no.

I totally understand that she has to do this to get her work done, or get out of that lab.

She went to the office that handles sexual discrimination on her campus, and they said it was too subtle, there was nothing they could do unless she wanted to file a formal complaint, but they discouraged that since it would be very hard to prove.

The only solution I can see is for the men in the lab to tell the PI that his behavior is inappropriate. They are the only witnesses. She has tried approaching other PIs in the department, but they are totally unreceptive (against university discrimination policy, of course, but what can you do).

Although the men in her lab are helping her win the daily battles, and they like to say they're feminists, they're really not.

They're perpetuating the sexism when they're in the perfect position to effect a change. Instead of helping her be treated equally, they're indirectly getting credit for her ideas.

Meanwhile, my friend is stuck using these un-feminist tactics to win these little battles on a daily basis, which is making her hate herself.

Now, the authors of the negotiation book argue that these approaches work well for women because we can't use the same methods that work for men.

Confronting this PI with this pattern of decision-making would not work. It would be impossible to document it effectively and demonstrate it in a way he would have to accept.

Although we have joked about how she should set up a webcam.

Worst of all, this PI is up for a promotion. We are wishing there were a way to send an un-recommendation letter. Unfortunately this is not a department that includes grad students and postdocs as representatives on their hiring committees.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Forecast: not fair.

One of my activities this week was reading a book on avoiding self-sabotage. From that, I have only a couple of thoughts worth mentioning.

One main point had to do with knowing what you stand for. What is your main belief that defines you.

I believe that things should be fair. I want honesty and equality. It's an ideal, not realistic given human nature. But it seems an ideal worth striving for.

I'm just not sure how best to strive for it.

Another main point was to be aware of when you are in conflict with yourself.

My central conflict, as you all know from reading this blog, is that part of me really wants a faculty position, and part of me wants to quit science altogether.

I realize that wanting to quit anything is a combination of immaturity and a genuine need for re-evaluation.

So yes, I am in conflict. Big conflict. But the book did not get me any closer to resolving it.

One thing that amused me about this book is how the author defines reality (I am paraphrasing here): the only real things are those which are tangible, for which we have scientific proof.

If there is one thing I've learned in science, it's that very little can really ever be proved. And a lot of science is intangible in a very real sense.

And there is so much more to getting an idea accepted than just having proof!

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with science.



So I had this daydream that I wish I could run for President of Science (if there were such an office) on a platform of Change.

Not that I would ever win a popularity contest, I'm too divisive (like Hillary).

But if we had to vote on a theme for science, I would vote Change.

We don't really have a President of Science, but maybe we should. I was talking to someone the other day about what a joke it is that the head of NIH is a presidential appointee.

Let's say that's the highest scientific office in the nation (it is in my field, in terms of funding).

Let's pretend we elect that person, and everyone is required to vote.

I'd like to daydream that things would have to change, since there are so many more postdocs and grad students than there are faculty.

But I am just letting my imagination run away from me. This would never happen, since the average demographic now is that about half of US Scientists (maybe even a majority, depends on how you count) are not Americans.

And then we would have to have a big debate about whether or not to let non-citizens vote. And that question always brings everything to a screeching halt.


In other news, Hillary is slipping and I find it depressing.

A friend who lives in a caucus state said he attended the caucus, and that it was a complete joke.

Apparently Barack tends to do better at caucuses than Hillary does.

But the way they are conducted- in a totally informal manner- means that if someone wanted to rig a caucus, it would be a whole lot easier than tipping a vote.

I'm not saying Barack would do that. But there's something fishy about the argument that Super Delegates are just a bunch of people in a room, when that's basically all a caucus is.

The only difference is which people, and how much does it count for. And nobody can seem to agree on that.

I've been saying since the days of Al Gore that I don't understand why we don't get rid of the whole delegate system and just decide based on popular vote.

The delegate system made sense when you had to have a man (women rode side-saddle by then!) ride a pony to get information across the country.

It just doesn't make sense anymore.

We have the technology, why don't we use it?

I think the primary should be national, all on the same day.

This crap about whether or not to count Florida or Michigan is just crap.

We need to cut the crap.

You want change? FAIRNESS would be a big change.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Grumble, grumble.

Stupid minor things annoying me today, just because I'm grouchy:

-labs full of iPod zombies

-iPod zombies who take things I made and don't replace them, but I can't yell at them because they have their iPod on or left for the day by the time I realized I had to make more to finish my experiment

-my own klutziness

-minor injuries due to my own klutziness

-the weather

-people who talk loudly in shared work spaces when they should be meeting in their offices with the door closed

-biological samples that won't behave, no one knows why

-people who brag about getting papers published and grants funded

-myself for congratulating these people because I know it's the "polite thing to do" even though I genuinely don't care

-people who call me on my cell phone to ask for my campus phone number and email address, when they shouldn't have my cell phone number in the first place and clearly have my full name and access to a computer

-people who write me asking for data, but when I send it don't write me back to acknowledge whether they got it or to say thank you

-people who said they'd read and comment on manuscripts months ago, but never did

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Deadlines, Fake Deadlines, and Lack Thereof

Patrick Lam mentioned in a comment on my last post that things in computer science just have to get done before the deadline.

What deadline?

Perhaps one of the weirdest things about research that most people don't realize is that there aren't really deadlines per se.

The fact that no one can accurately predict when anything will be finished- or if it will work at all- means that many people just give up trying.

We all have our formulas for deliberately overestimating how long we think things will take. We do this so we don't run out of money, patience, and motivation to eventually finish.

Mine is usually that everything will take at least 3 times longer than you think on the small scale, and 10 times longer on the large scale. Let me explain.

If you think you'll be done for the day in 10 minutes, it will actually be 30.

If you think your paper will be written in 1 month, it will actually come out in print in about 10 months.

You get the idea.

I am not a deadline person. By that I mean that having deadlines does not make me work faster (or make my experiments work better).

Mr.PhD is a deadline person, and lately he has been suffering from a lack of deadlines, so we've been talking about how using fake deadlines can sometimes help, but only if you use them wisely and not as a form of pointless self-flagellation.

I love fake deadlines. I like to have little outside events to use as rewards. I can often make myself do something unpleasant if I know I'm going to do something fun afterwards (which will be more fun if I am guilt-free).

Right now I have just enough fake deadlines that I think I will be okay until summer. I have enough things to look forward to, and a long list of things to do, most of which are not too terribly unpleasant.

Of course I say this but I missed the semi-fake deadlines, or lack thereof, to apply for jobs this year, and right now it looks like my last hope of just barely squeaking under the limbo pole will be too late.

Like I said, I am not a deadline person. If I can't finish things way ahead of time, I am usually screwed.

The only real deadlines are for grant submissions, large meetings where you have to submit an abstract or show up with a poster/talk prepared, and that wonderful 2-day sprint when you get the proofs of your papers and have to send them back if you want to make any corrections.

Other than that, I can't think of any times when anybody really cares whether I get anything done, and even those are irrelevant for me lately.

Yes, research is a weird career. Somebody I hadn't seen in a year asked me today if my research is going well. I said, "It's going." Which is about as good as it gets.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Grad school mode.

With as much benchwork as I've been doing lately, I've been in what I call my grad school mode.

Hey, it got me through, so it's not all bad.

Good things:

- get lots done
- get that nice virtuous feeling from getting lots done
- no guilt about reading blogs, skipping seminars, or dressing badly
- being too focused on the immediate goals to stress about the future... yet.

Bad things:

- eat badly/too much just to keep going

- wacky sleep schedule (work late - come in late loop)

- put off almost everything else, including most chores, exercising, and committing to plans with friends (because "I might have to work that day, I just don't know")

- put off making actual plans to take a long weekend break (see above re: "might have to work, don't know")

- eventually the future is here, with all of its associated stress (health insurance, taxes, will-these-other-experiments-actually-work-after-all-this-work, and will-the-paper-get-in-oh-please-oh-please-can-this-be-over-soon)


In other news, I started working on a presentation I'll be giving, eventually, on my latest work.

In some ways this is a small victory, and I am getting kind of excited. I realized I was getting nervous wayyyy in advance, so I might as well get started. And that little ounce of prevention seems to have worked to calm my nerves.

I ordered a book online about how to stop sabotaging yourself. I'm curious to see what it says I'm doing wrong. Probably things I already know I'm doing. I'm really curious to see if it can tell me how to stop doing them. The reviews of this book are pretty spectacular, "It changed my life!" and so on. I figured what the hell, might as well do the experiment.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Random tidbits.

It's nicer outside than I was expecting today. And I am in lab. For at least a little longer. Can't wait to get out of here!

Got some good results. Still have a few things to do that I'd rather not do, but am feeling generally less inept that I was last week, and that is good. I am waiting on a few more results before I leave, but I have that temptation to not look. You know, like when you make someone else open the envelope? You're going to get the news either way, eventually. But right now I'm in a decent mood and if I don't get the results I wanted, I will be annoyed.

Have plans to do something fun tonight. Fun! I can't believe it.

Am NOT going to check email today. And will refrain from using profgrrrrl's trick of writing emails on my blog that I would love to send but actually can't send in real life.

Had bad dreams about work this morning. I really don't want to relive the grad school hell of daily nightmares. It's like some part of my psyche wants to be competitive, or something. I don't get it. Why else would I have nightmares about getting scooped? Stupid subconscious.

And I keep recalling this conversation I had with a PI recently. He was describing someone who is going to visit and saying I should join them for dinner with this guy. He said this guy is "sloppy but ambitious... so he knows things sometimes before other people do." Huh??

What really got me was that this PI has a habit of being, shall we say, a little too honest. And his style of manipulation is to discuss someone else while obliquely comparing them to you. So I think he's saying that I'm sloppy but ambitious.

I don't know, I'm meticulous about some things but not others. I'd like to think I know which things matter and which don't. And ambitious? Well maybe I am sometimes, others not so much.

(Like right now, my big ambition is to finish the current step. And then take the next step. And hopefully submit a paper before too long. Is that ambitious? I guess it depends on how hard the steps are and where we send the paper?)

I was thinking about asking this PI for a recommendation letter, but I worry that he would be honest in his weird way and that it would sound bad to people who don't know any better.

I just hate that I have to hard time purging things I've heard from my head, even when I know I should.

My timer is about to go off. Tomorrow I plan to do a lot of nothing. And some more laundry. There is always more laundry.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Baffled: confident vs. arrogant?

I've noticed this is an ongoing theme. A commenter on FSP's latest post said she finds comfort in knowing that even insecure people can do well in science.

I would argue that many insecure people are successful in science, but unfortunately most of them have developed coping skills that are damaging to everyone around them.

One common defense mechanism is the tendency to lash out when feeling threatened. Since confident people don't often feel threatened, I've learned that usually when people are defensive or playing dirty, it's because they lack confidence.

In support of this hypothesis, some commenters on this blog accuse me of being arrogant.

In my experience in real life, when people I thought were arrogant revealed their insecurities to me, I realized I was just jealous because they seemed so confident or otherwise successful when I am not.

In some ways, this is an issue that has long hurt women in the workplace.

Confident women are labeled as aggressive or bitchy.

To help clarify this discussion, I will paraphrase a couple of definitions of Confident from the free dictionary I found via Google:

Confident =

"Marked by assurance, as of success."
"Very bold; presumptuous."


Arrogant =

"Having or diplaying overbearing self-worth or self-assurance."
"Assumption of one's superiority over others."

So I have to wonder, is Arrogant the new Bitchy?

I was thinking about this because a friend was telling me how she realized her boss thinks she's a knowitall, and she has to fix this.

She's not a knowitall. At all.

I know this because she frequently calls me to confirm her ideas. Most of the time she's on the right track and doesn't need any help from me, but she does need that validation, that little boost of confidence. If she were a knowitall, would she need that?

But somehow her boss is threatened by her, I think, and so she has to make a point to reveal her doubts and sources more often to help alleviate this misimpression (I just made that word up, does it sound Bushy enough?).

In my experience, I can't win either way. If I give credit to my colleagues, I'm told not to because it undermines my Authority as an Expert.

But I get labeled "arrogant" or "knowitall" when I want to present my original ideas in papers or talks.

I have to assume this is partly because I'm female (oh yes, and "young"). I can only think of one female colleague who is outspoken about her original ideas, so I don't have enough data points for comparison. She is exactly the type who could be considered "arrogant" if you don't know her personally vs. "confident" (in a good way) if you do.

But being confident doesn't mean you never doubt yourself. Or does it?

What really baffles me is that my male colleagues who are similarly outspoken about their ideas are definitely arrogant. And even if they are not, they seem arrogant, which is effectively all that matters.

But contrary to the negative effects for women, appearing arrogant earns men more respect, not less.

This may not be true everywhere, but it is how I perceive the situation where I work.

Is this yet another thing that is worse in academia, I wonder?

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Where are the holes?

As a comment to my last post, Gosh asked how you know where to go in science to find something new, and says it sometimes feels like you'd have to read a lot of textbooks since it seems like everything is already known.

I've written a lot about how much I think reading helps. It's not the whole thing, but it is a big part.


One professor I had in college assigned us two giant textbooks to read over the summer.

Maybe I'm the only one who actually did (?!).

I liked the message it sent:

We're not going to go chapter by chapter and ask you stupid quiz questions every week. We're going to ask you to absorb as much of this as you can, so we can move on to more interesting discussion. But we can't talk as equals until you've been exposed to the vocabulary and the concepts.


There are at least three main pluses to reading well-written textbooks:

1. Outstanding questions. Things we've wanted to know that we still don't know. Good textbooks will just tell you plainly, "Here is an interesting idea. We still don't know how this works."

At the root of it, this is the main thing that made me want to get into science. The idea that everything is NOT already known!

I was shocked to learn this. Weren't you?

2. Historical context. Sometimes it's downright funny how wrong the old models were, but you can often see exactly why they thought they were right, given what they knew at the time.

3. Practice reading for assumptions. It's partly language, and it's partly smell - you start to sniff out the leaps in logic. Textbooks are a great place to learn how to tell when something has been 'assumed' but never actually tested.

Textbooks are where you learn the rules. How will you know an exception if you don't know the rules?

Change favors the prepared mind (no, that's not a typo).


Obviously, textbooks are are biased - everyone is biased, we admit it. And often outdated, sometimes dangerously so (at least in my field). Neither of these would be a problem, except that beginning students aren't always taught to keep these things in mind.

The first thing you need is a healthy dose of doubt. Don't take anyone's word for it that we actually know something. Anything. Figure out which stuff you believe. To do that, you have to read.


Then you have to learn the limits of the technology. What can you really say. Where are the holes. What's the limit of detection. What's the error.

I can't emphasize this enough. My main frustrations with colleagues lately are that they don't seem to understand the most basic techniques that we all use. What you can and can't say using qualitative or quantitative methods. When it's inappropriate to just report a mean, or just show one example. The difference between a good reagent and a bad one, and how to tell which is which.


To start to learn this, you do experiments. And you read papers. LOTS of papers.

When you read a lot, patterns emerge. In most fields, there are groups of authors who dominate the Big Journals, and their papers converge on an accepted model. It's the pat-each-other-on-the-back phenomenon. You'll know it because they all cite each other, and they don't discuss outstanding questions or exceptions (even if they were the ones who authored them in the first place).

But in every field, in other journals, there are odd little observations that don't fit with the accepted model. You usually can't find these by reading citation lists, you have to go directly to the library (Pubmed, Google Scholar, whatever).

You have to read both kinds of papers.

Usually the accepted model is mostly right.

But it's almost NEVER Completely Right (!).

Usually the odd little observations are in odd little systems that are less well understood, obscure organisms or uncommon techniques. And that is why they are easily ignored or dismissed. They are often badly written and almost always hard to understand.

But biology is all about exceptions, because every rule gets broken somewhere.

You have to read both kinds of papers to find the holes. The mainstream papers are all about "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

If you just read those, of course it will seem like everything is already known.

It's not.


Sometimes when a rule breaks, it's an example of another way to solve a biological problem. Parallel evolution, maybe.

May be telling you something important.

Sometimes an exception is just an exception. Differences can be tolerated, even if they don't excel.

The gamble is guessing, when you find an exception, whether it's just tolerated in a marginal system, or if it's telling you to think about a paradigm shift. Or a way to do something in vitro.

A great example are thermophilic bacteria. Once upon a time, people would have told you, there is no way life can survive in a place that hot.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and there is no way we could do the things with PCR that we do now, thanks to polymerases from those thermophiles that can survive 30 cycles in a heat block.


So reading is great, but I actually get most of my really new ideas when I'm observing the systems I work in by doing experiments.

Beware the risky all-or-nothing projects: they just lead to dead ends.

Here's how to tell the difference.

For a good observational project, if it's designed correctly with controls and a broad enough hypothesis, you're going to learn something no matter what.

You'll have the opportunity to make observations by stressing the system just enough.

For a risky all-or-nothing project, you'll often hear the phrase, "If this works..."

The reason "if" features so prominently is that if it doesn't work, you've got nothing. Not even new information about what to do next.

For better or worse funding, I design my experiments so that, if all the controls work the way they should (and they don't always work as expected!), I will learn something.

Something new.

Usually along the way, I see something I didn't expect to see. And then I go design an experiment to test whether that's real.

So to summarize this whole diatribe: pay attention to the exceptions. If it's reproducible, it's probably not just an anomaly.

The trick is having to nerve, the time, the resources and the permission to find out which ones are anomalies by testing them.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

On a positive note.

Things I still like about my job:

1. A little positive feedback goes a long way.

2. Not having to sit at a desk all day, every day.

3. Working with young people who haven't yet had all the personality beaten out of them.

4. Working mostly with liberal people who believe in reproductive rights and letting women wear pants to work.

5. The occasional good feeling when experiments work.

6. Every once in a while, still getting to learn something new.

7. Just because I'm a girl, they never would have let me do this a hundred years ago.

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