Friday, June 27, 2008

Nothing good.

I've got nothing good to say today. Had bad dreams last night, have been in a bad mood all morning, and it's not going away.

One of the books I'm reading talks about how men tend to think the world is their oyster, while women tend to think (regardless of culture or career success) that you can't get blood from a turnip- you should make do with what you have.

I think a lot of my problems lately stem from this clash between what society assumes about women and that I don't fit with that stereotype.

I had a discussion yesterday with MrPhD about how most people think it's okay that there are not many women constructions workers, because they assume women don't want to be construction workers.

I would have liked to be a construction worker. But I was always told I'm too female, and partly because of that I'm not physically built to argue the point.

But in most ways, contrary to what you might think from this blog, I was always an oyster person. My mom is funny, she thinks I got that from watching too much Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street as a kid, where you can always be anything you want to be.

But the things I have experienced since I started grad school have turned me into a turnip person. You can squeeze a lot of beets, as it were, but you're never going to get anything other than beet juice.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Today was an okay day.

Despite the always-irritating news that somebody I helped (just to be nice!) do a potentially awesome experiment has decided not to follow up on it, the rest of the day was basically okay.

I think it helped that I had a big breakfast, got some work done, and mostly avoided talking to anybody all day, except one good friend who came by to chat and make me laugh.

I am happy to say that one meeting I had scheduled for today got postponed, and the only one I had scheduled for tomorrow got canceled. Hooray!

And I am planning to take as much of the weekend off as possible. Ha!

Although lately I am verging on the mode of thinking about my science at random times (in my sleep, in the shower, when I'm meeting with somebody boring...).

Maybe because I haven't had much time to think, without interruptions, during Official Work Hours.

It's sort of like being deprived of sleep- if you don't get enough during the allotted time, you'll find yourself catching up when you don't intend to.

The mind is a terrible thing.

Big breakfast aside, I must not have had enough lunch, since now I'm starving, and basically done in lab for the day. I'm heading home now before anything (more likely anyone) has a chance to ruin my mood!

(Dinner is almost always yay!)

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Feel free to spam DrugMonkey.

Read the last comment on the post re: PP.

Then go tell those fuckers what their wonderful system, and insight into it, has done for you lately.

Maybe if my readers overwhelm them with examples from their own lives as many of you have already done here, they'll realize it's not that we haven't TRIED to take their advice?

Do we think they're actually capable of considering there's another side to the story, instead of the usual blame-the-victims attitude they've got going?

I just love how they always accuse us of ignoring all our mentors/elders/advisors.

And accuse me of having a "schtick" that's "getting old."

The point is that we're NOT exceptions to the rule.

We, the postdocs, are the best examples of why their beloved system is BROKEN.

And we have tried very hard, and repeatedly, to take their 'advice'.

Even when it it sounds logical and yet.... doesn't work.

Even when they resort to the following:

(1) "It's simple, just find another lab!"
(2) "Why don't you go to industry?"

Or my personal favorite,

(3) "Quit whining you stupid bitch!"

Yeah, their so-called advice DOES NOT magically fix everything.

I have more I could say here. [I could say that it does not help for you, dear PI-who-got-his-job-in-an-entirely-different-economy, to tell me that once upon a time you were worried and scared and had problems. It really doesn't help me at all.

It's very nice for you to have the "I got through it so I don't have to feel sorry for you" attitude, because it means you don't have to face up to the possibility that you wasted a lot of time and energy suffering when maybe you shouldn't have had to.

I'm sure it's easier for you to blame me than to take a good hard look at this system that you think you've conquered, and ask whether we shouldn't be throwing the whole thing out the window.]

But I won't say that, because I'm tired.

I'm tired of arguing with people who ignore what I have to say, and call me names*.

I get to do that all day at work, where we use nice euphemisms for it like 'negotiating'.

*Oops, did I just call them a name?



Sunday, June 22, 2008

Momentums lost.

Not so long ago, I wrote briefly that I had made some progress with my advisor. I knew it was a fragile momentum, but I thought it was at least a step in the right direction.

But as often happens with these things, before I could gain sufficient momentum in that way, we hit a roadblock and the momentum got lost.

It's frustrating because the roadblock is also a wake-up call for my advisor.

In a way, this was exactly what I needed: an outside Voice of Reason to say

"Hey, MsPhD wanted to do THIS and you told her to do THAT and she did because you're the PI, but you know what?

She should have followed her own instincts, and done THIS instead.

You should have listened to her."

[Those of you who have been reading this blog know that the subtext is

Since PI accused her of ignoring all PI's suggestions, MsPhD had to do THAT to show she can go with the flow (or whatever)]

The trouble now is, this wake-up call has already had a variety of undesirable consequences.

(1) PI feels doubtful.

1a. PI is self-doubtful (because THAT was not as good as THIS would have been)
1b. PI feels guilty about feeling doubtful.
1c. PI feels doubtful of MsPhD (even if that might be unfair, PI is human and that is how PI feels, and it shows)

(2) MsPhD is doubtful too.

2a. MsPhD is questioning her abilities and desire to keep on this path
2b. MsPhD is questioning whether she really has sufficient spine to stand up to PI as much as necessary
2c. MsPhD is doubtful of PI for pushing THAT when it wasn't the right thing
2d. MsPhD is also pissed off because she KNEW it wasn't the right thing but felt like she had to do it anyway, for the reason mentioned above (and previously on this blog*).
2e. MsPhD is doubtful that she can figure out how to get past this roadblock, and that it won't happen again, and that if it does it won't eventually push PI to conclude that MsPhD is not worth it.

*[The damned-if-you-do-or-don't reason, which has all along seemed like something of a sexist problem to begin with. The male postdocs who ignore everyone's suggestions somehow still manage to get jobs. A guy can be a Troubled Child and get away with it. They get to be Mavericks. When women do it, we're difficult, we're Bitch.

Yes, I am Bitch. But lately I am just Tired. It takes a lot of energy and confidence to be Bitch. Right now I am 'haggard', as someone said in a comment. I love that word. Somehow I always pictured haggard as a tall, skinny guy with stubble. See? I'm sexist! Can I be haggard too?]

So because of what should have been only a momentary loss of momentum, although we have a plan for what to do next, PI's current response, despite agreeing to this plan, is to stall everything.

In other words, PI has chosen to procrastinate.

Procrastinating is the WORST possible thing we could be doing right now.

But what can I do. PI is out of town again.

In the meantime I am trying to think.

Lately I have felt like I can't. Think.

The last couple of weeks I've been trying hard to clear my head enough to figure out what I want to do next. It hasn't been working. I make seemingly endless, nested lists of things I want to do... but lately there are too many things, and I can't prioritize them by the main criterion of Things I CAN and absolutely SHOULD do HERE AND NOW.

My favorite organization tool, Omnifocus, isn't helping, because the whole point of scheduling things is that you have to know how long things are going to take, and be able to break them down into predictable units of time. So it's kind of a joke for research anyway, but it can be helpful...

I guess I need to spend some time figuring out how many units and how long each one would take in the perfect world (multiplying by factors of 3-10x for conversion to the research world)...

At one point I was thinking of things I should do to get preliminary data for grant application(s). Then I was thinking maybe I should focus on things I can do while PI is paying for it (as most of the other postdocs who got jobs did before they left). Maybe some of those things are the same?

Maybe instead of making lists, I should be making Venn diagrams?

The wake-up call just reinforced once again how important it is for me to have my own agenda and push it hard, even if it means risking pissing off PI because really, what's the worst that could happen? I need to buy something to do the experiments I decide on, and PI says no? Not that that's ever stopped me, I can always go do it in someone else's lab...

Meanwhile, I've tried soliciting feedback from numerous people on the work I've done so far, and all the questions everyone would like to see answered. To try to figure out what to do first.

But beware this approach. Although it has helped in the past, this time it has not helped. The suggestions I've gotten are range from boring to bizarre to bewildering.

Most people, I've realized, only suggest what they know best, which tends to be whatever model organism or techniques they use in their own research.

I guess because I have so far been somewhat fearless about trying new things, people seem to assume they can suggest anything and I will try it. Which might be true, but, um, this is really not the kind of suggestion I'm looking for right now.

So the suggestions I've gotten range from testing my models in 3 different organisms (none of which I have worked with before, and all of which have their own set of methods and problems I only know about from a distance) .... to learning really cutting-edge new techniques, some of which can't be done at my university or even in my town ... to backtracking to methods I've used in the past but with a new twist ... to doing experiments completely in vitro with only purified components.

And it's not clear that any of these will work faster, be easier, or more informative than any of the others.

Or that any of these would be guaranteed crowd pleasers (where crowd = search committee and/or paper referees and/or study section).

So you can see how I'm feeling like gee, maybe input is not what I needed after all?

Maybe what I need is some time to decide for myself what I think is most interesting, and then do that.

Trouble is, I don't have a lot of time. Time is the one thing I do not have.

Here we are, it's almost July, and despite my gently reminding PI (which doesn't seem to be helping since guilt seems to feed the procrastination response)... for me to apply for jobs this year, we are already several months behind. Maybe already too far behind.

So I guess that's what I should be doing.

To do:

1. Build Time Machine.
2. Make all new mistakes this time around.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

That's me, the young spaghetti monster.

Some funny typos in the comments over at this post by PhysioProf at Drugmonkey regarding my last post.

Seems to me there were some misreadings here, although I'm sure I'm at least partly to blame for not writing clearly.

Funny though, the commenters over here seem to have read it clearly enough...

So PP starts in like this:

A senior post-doc is responsible for a particular project, and possibly supervises one or two technicians or grad students. A junior PI is responsible for multiple projects, and supervises an entire lab full of people, perhaps as many as a dozen.

To which I say, look, I'm talking about a really junior prof here. Someone who just got their job, who definitely doesn't have an R01 yet or maybe hasn't renewed their first R01 yet.

Someone like that should NOT have a dozen people.

In fact, I'm not convinced anyone ever should. There are good data to show that no one can effectively supervise more than 8 people at a time. I'm in favor of capping lab size for that reason, if not for all the other obvious ones this blog frequently highlights.

A senior post-doc needs to motivate herself--and maybe one or two other people--to be productive. A junior PI needs to motivate a entire lab full of people to be productive.

Hi, I have a MUCH bigger problem. I have to motivate my PI. My whole career depends on it. And my PI has a lot less incentive to do what I ask, because of the power differential.

It's MUCH easier to motivate people when you have authority on your side.

It requires a lot more creativity to figure out what your supervisor wants, in order to get them to do what you need.

A senior post-doc is not responsible for securing funding to support her project. A junior PI must take a limited amount of start-up funds and leverage it into long-term external financial support for an entire laboratory.

Wrong. Just wrong. What senior postdocs have you been talking to?

Most of us are past the point of our fellowships expiring. That's why the K99 (et al.) are so coveted.

Have you SEEN an application for a K99? It's an R01, PLUS a whole extra section on career plan.

Have you seen the numbers on how many are awarded vs. how many applications are submitted? They're MORE competitive than R01s. More. Not less.

A senior post-doc needs to plan her research project on the time scale of a couple of years, essentially looking towards the next paper or two as an endpoint.

I think that's a very dangerous way to do a postdoc. The flip side is, more PIs need to think this way about projects, in terms of what is necessary to complete a publishable unit that will advance the career of the postdoc or grad student who is doing the work.

The PIs I've worked with have always been reluctant to view projects in terms of short-term rewards as the necessary currency for the job market.

A junior PI must take a long-term view of a minimum of five years for each project in the laboratory, and must also take a big picture view of how the projects relate one to the other and fit together in an overall research program.

Again, why aren't more senior postdocs doing this?

To me, if you have a halfway decent project you want to take with you when you leave, you BETTER be doing this from the beginning of your postdoc project.

I know I have. I know PP thinks this is stupid. So there again, we disagree. I think you have to do both the short and long-term planning, always. Regardless of where you are in your career. To do anything else is just foolish.

A senior post-doc needs to have an impressive enough CV to convince a hiring committee to give the post-doc a shot at runnning her own operation. A junior PI needs to convince an entire field that their research is integral to the advancement of that field and develop an international reputation as an outstanding scientist in order to earn tenure and get to keep her job.

This right here sums up what disgusts me about our current system.

What the fuck is a postdoc for, then? Sounds like a royal fucking waste of time to me.

Oh wait, I already know that. I've done the experiment!

Seriously though, what I am doing is trying to convince my entire field that my research is integral to the advancement of science. Period. Because what the hell else are we doing this for.

I'm not in it for having a shining CV. Can't take that with you.

What matters in life is making a difference.

Too bad we don't know what great contributions PP has made thus far. Hopefully something good, but somehow I doubt that was part of the career plan.


PP digresses a bit to talk about why it's bad for a PI to send out a paper without making sure the 'first author' agrees with what's written. This was brought up by one of FSP's posts.

Yup, that's bad.

I always show shit to my trainees before presenting or submitting it and say: "Yo, can I say this shit? Is this shit right?" And I make it very clear that I embrace their criticism, and that I will never, ever, ever be angry if they tell me that my conclusions are wrong. But I will be very, very, very angry if they tacitly allow us to submit or present something that isn't correct.

It is a specific management skill to effectively get people you supervise to be completely open and free with telling you things they think you might want not to hear. And post-docs do not have to exhibit this skill very much, if at all.

And yet here again I have to disagree with the PP point of view.

It is VERY hard to convince a PI, once they have it in their head that they know what the data show, that it doesn't actually show that.

And we postdocs can only argue up to a point without getting in deep doo-doo.

So sometimes a PI steps in it. Not because we didn't try to warn them.

But we're the ones who get blamed, ultimately, when it hits the fan.

And as for managing people and getting them to tell you things you might not want to hear? Postdocs manage students. Students are the MOST prone to this tendency to avoid telling you the experiment didn't work. They're always afraid it was their fault, or that you'll be upset it didn't work as you hoped.

So yeah, we do that too, believe it or not. Even postdocs do that too.


It is absolutely delusional to think that "a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI". And adopting the attitude that this is the case is actually harmful to both senior post-docs and junior PIs.

Delusional, my ass. Only if you're wasting your postdoctoral time as somebody else's bench slave!

My point, dear PP, is that the line between senior postdoc and junior PI is a whole lot blurrier than some might want to believe.

Very similar to how the difference between a very senior grad student and someone with a PhD is often minimal or even meaningless. The day of the defense is just another day. The presentation, just another presentation. The straw that breaks the camel's back, as it were.

In other words, it's a hoop. A sometimes meaningless distinction. An incredibly important, almost arbitrary distinction that makes all the difference in the world.

I really enjoyed Bill's comments on PPs point, since he pointed out that if being a PI requires a totally different skill set, as PP purports, then what the hell are we doing as postdocs.

This central paradox has always been obvious to me, and is basically the whole point of why I have this blog.

I won't deny that I've learned a helluva lot as a postdoc. But I have to wonder why I had to go out of my way to learn it, because the most important things I've learned have been in no way part of my pseudo-official postdoctoral 'training.'

And I'll never understand why ANYONE thinks it's good or fair that I had to learn all of it in such shitty circumstances.

With NO guarantee that it's an investment in a future no one is sure I'll EVER have.

And I have to wonder why, when I've gone to such great lengths to learn all these things, people like PP assume that none of these things have occurred to me (or to you, my gentle fellow postdoc readers!).

Why, I wonder with my useless PhD and several years of potentially worthless postdoctoral experience, does everyone still always assume I'm an idiot.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Read my lips. Who's in charge.

A comment on my last post regarding whether or not postdocs should be presenting their own work brings up a topic I've written about before, but which I think is important enough to keep repeating.

I went to a talk the other day where an older (though maybe only 60-ish!) guy presented the work of two of his postdocs (out of how many in his lab, I don't know).

In the talk, he did something I've only rarely seen PIs do: pointing out that one of the postdocs was present and available to answer questions "since he knows the work better than I do". I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad that he said that. Maybe a little of both.

And since then (and the comment on my last post about who would you rather see present the work, the PI or the postdoc) I've been thinking about this quite a bit.

In one way, yes the more experienced PIs can often be better speakers because they don't get stage fright, and they've given these talks hundreds of times. They have a certain amount of authority. You get a polished product, maybe a little more historical perspective (I'll come back to that), and maybe another benefit: 1 PI can talk about 2 or more projects in a single talk. And it's perfectly acceptable, maybe even expected, for them to do so.

On the other hand, you can't ask them anything technical, usually they don't know the answer. I actually saw a guy do this at a talk once, with what I think was deliberate aim: he asked several technically challenging questions in quick succession, and the PI speaker was basically stunned into silence. I was hysterical with silent laughter.

And there is this other aspect that most PIs don't want to admit: a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI. Admittedly, junior PIs don't get to give talks as often as senior PIs, but they give talks more often than postdocs.

The point of this comparison is that in at least some (!) cases the senior postdoc proposed the project, did the project, and has lots of ideas for where her project will go next, since it is presumably the subject of her future grants and lab studies. Senior PI guy might not know those things, and might not, in some cases, really appreciate the importance and implications of the work that has already been done.

In general I was thinking about this because I was noticing once again how it seems like the postdocs and grad students are actually driving the research behind the scenes, and the PIs are really just figureheads. They're not exactly puppets, but in a way they could be. In some labs they are.

The historical perspective aspect is an important one, and I can't emphasize enough how much it annoys me when a grad student or postdoc is asked a question about the history of their own field and can't answer it.

The other day I asked a question like this and the speaker (a postdoc) looked at me and said very dismissively, "That's very philosophical" and continued on without even attempting to answer. Sheesh! I actually know a little more about her field than she might realize. I know she could have answered my question succinctly, in just 1 sentence that conveyed the traditional thinking as well as her personal take on it.

Instead, I am left to conclude that she hasn't read the classic papers in her field (even though I have!). Which made me wonder if she's not one of these glorified technician types that some PI commenters are always complaining about (?).

I'll agree, I don't want to see that kind of postdoc presenting talks. I'd take a senior PI over that sort of person any day. But I think most PIs know that, and that's why they don't generally give their talk slots away to their postdocs.

Having said that, sometimes I'd rather hear one, complete story from an articulate postdoc than a bunch of snippets from a breezy world-traveling PI who can't answer questions effectively. I always feel sorry for the postdocs who did the work, because I know the talk rarely gives them the credit they deserve.

Will I give talks away to my postdocs? Sure, when they're good speakers and have a good story to tell. They might not come into the lab that way, but I'll make sure they gain those skills quickly and practice them sufficiently before they leave.

I like to travel, but I already know that most PIs are invited to more meetings than they can possibly attend in a year, and their labs suffer when they're constantly out of town. A handful of meetings a year is enough! I'd much rather send my postdocs to some of them. To me, that's a win-win.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Did you really just say that?

Lately I'm having so many awkward conversations with senior PIs who have zero social skills and even less clue.

Some quotes to file in this category:

"You don't look like you could be old enough to have a PhD, much less be a senior postdoc."

"There you go, now you're thinking like a PI!"

I went to a talk yesterday by one of these guys (all guys of course). The speaker was very old, clearly presentimg the work of his postdocs, and not very well. It was one of those that just stood out as someone who should have retired 10+ years ago.

One PI said his thesis advisor just retired. Guess how old he was. Guess.Just guess.


Friday, June 13, 2008

A step in which direction

keyboard malfunctioning so this will be brief.

A minor victory with the advisor- got something I needed, but I think Advisor is miffed. I shouldn't but of course I worry if I'm doing the right thing here.

Anticlimactic Friday but a maybe relaxingish weekend ahead.

That's good, right? So why don't I feel better? Can't please everybody all the time, least of all me


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Not even out of the gate yet.

I was still at home when I got an email that I can only file under sexual harassment.

Not actionable, I don't think, but definitely not the sort of shit I should have to deal with at work.

This was before 9 AM.

The person who sent it is, I'm sure, totally unaware of how inappropriate it is.

And I am not in a position to do anything about it.

I had kind of already given up on today turning out like I had hoped. And then I had the whole ride to work to think about how much it pissed me off.


Number of times so far this month that someone has asked me how my job search is going:
~ 20.

They ALL ask "Why not?" when I say I'm not applying.

Eventually I am going to start screaming uncontrollably when asked.

That day might be today.

Too bad I need to meet with my advisor today too. I am having that FUCK IT ALL, I WANT TO QUIT!!!! feeling.

Maybe it will pass. Hopefully it will pass before I do anything stupid.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Don't count on it.

We've discussed the possibility of more jobs opening up when the baby boomers retire.

Hasn't happened yet. Might not ever.

This beautifully written article in the Chronicle has quite a bit to say on the subject, and is well worth the time to read completely.

One excerpt on the subject of history repeating itself (because no one was listening the first time):

Mr. Ehrenberg thinks the majority of academic retirements will occur naturally. "I don't think colleges are going to be in such a hurry to kick people out," he says. He and others say that young Ph.D.'s should not count on a windfall of jobs as their elders turn emeritus. Cost-conscious colleges, for instance, could shift some jobs off the tenure track. And past predictions of waves of retirements helping out the academic job market have flopped: A major study published in 1989 by William G. Bowen, then president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, predicted that colleges could face severe faculty shortages by the end of the 1990's, largely because of retirements. But the expectations raised for an improving job market in the arts and sciences did not materialize.

I think there is no way these retirements are going to happen naturally. The numbers just don't add up. Scroll to the bottom of the article for several useful tables citing percentages of institutions that say they want to recruit new faculty (96%) but are clearly not thinking about where they'll put us how we'll be paid, since many fewer institutions say they are thinking about retiring old faculty (19%).

How can that be? Here's another excerpt explaining why this is more of a problem now than ever before:

The average age of retirement in the general population is 62. But in academe, faculty members appear to be retiring at 66, on average, and that age is drifting upward, although retirement data is not always as crisp as demographers might like. The August telephone survey found that about one-third of those responding expected to retire at age 70 or later. The ability of colleges to enforce a mandatory retirement age of 70 ended in 1994, when an academic exemption for a federal age-discrimination law expired.

Maybe the academic exemption wasn't such a bad idea. Maybe they shouldn't have retired it!

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Orange underground.

these people are clearly missing the point .

One person said it was unique... it's not. Haven't you seen Fight Club? It's fucking brilliant.

And hilarious. I love it. Guerrilla humor!

Keep on cheeto-ing on!


Monday, June 09, 2008

Crises averted!

Don't have a lot of time to blog, too much to do.

But suffice it to say, several fires today (and over the weeend), but I think they've all been put out.

I railed, I rallied, but outwardly I just remained calm.

And I think it's all gonna be ok.

All that practice is paying off.

The highlight of this weekend: I watched the end of Weeds, Season 3, which was very appropriate (and highly recommended).

A note for the wannabe successful PIs, one of many good quotes from the show:

Thug means never having to say you're sorry.

And now, back to the coal mines. Booyah.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

It's Saturday, I'm in lab, and...

I'm starving,


not sure if my experiment worked.

Not sure how to tell, since it definitely didn't work like it was supposed to.

Not sure what to do about it.

Can't do anything about it for at least a couple weeks, then it takes another month or so to repeat.


And I have a long list of things to do after this, starting with at least one thing that is absolutely critical and has to get done ASAP.

Ahhh, research is the life for me.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

How, indeed.

kcsphil asked, [edited for typos by yours truly]

If the PI's don't keep current on lab techniques and then teach them to the grad students or post-docs, how do the PIs expect to get their science done? And what's the point in having them mentor the grad students or Post-docs if they have nothing to teach?

This question is really loaded with possibilities. I'm going to try to break it down in parts but I'm SURE the comments will pick up on anything I might miss.

1. If the PI's don't keep current on lab techniques

In general: they can't. They don't. "Current on lab techniques" to a PI is what they learn

a) at meetings, where they see data presented in a talk (that includes their own lab meetings)

b) from reading

c) in the ideal case, if they go on sabbatical.

"Current on lab techniques" to those of us in the trenches is

a) tried it
b) multiple ways
c) have seen all the things that can go wrong
d) know how to fix them.

2. how do the PIs expect to get their science done?

This makes me laugh.

The system right now is predicated on a hierarchy. All labs are different, but typically there are two types of lab members.

a) Senior members.

This includes the PI, lab managers who have been there more than a couple of years, grad students nearing the end of their PhD, and postdocs getting ready to leave.

The benefit of these people is that they serve as the 'institutional memory', if you will, of the lab.

The drawback is that they are usually very busy, often beyond the point of really learning the newest hottest techniques, and/or one foot out the door.

b) junior members.

That's you, new grad students and new postdocs. You don't know the history of the lab, and if you switched fields after your PhD, you might not know much about the history of the field (beyond what you've learned from your extensive reading!).

The old Apprenticeship model, upon which science is supposedly based, went something like this:

Master trains first Apprentice.
Apprentice becomes Journeyman.
Journeyman trains subsequent Apprentices.
Disputes and promotion decisions are resolved by the Master.
Only when the Master dies, or if a new position opens up in a faraway village, is the Journeyman promoted.

(sound familiar?)

The main problem with this system, you understand, is that it is at least in part a game of telephone. In each round, some of the original information gets lost or distorted.

The main advantage of this system is the division of labor. The Master supervises. Because the 'team', as it were, has grown, production can increase.

3. And what's the point in having them mentor the grad students or Post-docs if they have nothing to teach?

As many of us have written before, it's not that PIs have nothing to teach. It's just that they're not really taught how to be good mentors and/or don't want to, and there is nothing in the system now that really forces them to.

Mentoring and teaching are different things.

Once upon a time, in a different era, PIs spent more time with their grad students. Labs were not so big; publishing was very slow before the internet; there were no such thing as postdocs.

The main incentive to mentor AND teach was to create Journeymen.

The quickest way to get an Apprentice to the Journeyman level is to teach them how to design, execute, troubleshoot and interpret experiments.

PIs had to do this themselves if they wanted their lab to be productive.

As the postdoc position became more prevalent, PIs were able to stay farther and farther away from the Apprentices.

Good PIs take their senior Journey-people under their wing and help them learn how to write papers and grants, polish their talks, mediate collaborations and reagent requests, and help them figure out their next career step(s).

That's the kind of mentoring we're typically talking about. Career mentoring, which is really one step up from the actual day-to-day of getting experiments to work.

But essentially this means that Journeymen (postdocs) are the ones who are teaching the Apprentices (grad students) how to design, execute, troubleshoot, and interpret their experiments. It's not that the Master is not involved. In some labs, they are. But in most labs I've seen, the Master makes a 'suggestion' and the Apprentice makes a beeline for the Journeyman who has actually used that technique, to ask whether to do it and how. Some Masters know this, some do not.

Masters are often too busy to notice. There is plenty for PIs to do because the operations are much bigger now than they used to be. Grants are harder to get, and papers are harder to publish. Projects are bigger, longer, and way more expensive than they used to be. And it's all a lot more competitive than it once was.

Unfortunately, Journey-people are not rewarded for mentoring Apprentices. Many of us do it, generosity of spirit, mostly (or if we're lucky, for middle-authorship and brownie points with the Master). In the long run, we gain experience. So when we have our own labs (if), we will be able to mentor our first Apprentices until we can get some Journey-people of our own.

PIs are typically good mentors if

a) they like helping people or doing experiments (in which case they might suck at getting funding because they're not spending enough time writing grants or papers)

b) they don't want to be embarrassed at their students' committee meetings

c) they don't have postdocs to pick up the slack

But as you'll note,

(a) is dangerous and rare simply by natural selection;

(b) is not much of an incentive because grad students are cheap and plentiful, easily replaced, so the strategy is more of a screening than a cultivation;

(c) is rare in the current climate because postdocs are cheap, plentiful, productive, and terrified of demanding even the most basic maintenance level of mentoring.

There is the extremely rare case where the PIs is wildly successful AND a good mentor because they just like helping people.

But my strong impression is that in MOST of those cases, behind the scenes the postdocs are actually writing large parts of the grants and otherwise doing significantly more work to keep the lab afloat than they're getting credit for, out of sheer survival instinct.

You might think you're joining a lab to work with the (famous) Master. But it's not about the destination. It's about the Journey.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

white noise.

I generally hate white noise. I hate it on airplanes. I hate static. Don't particularly like it when I get a haircut and the person is slow with the dryer.

I sleep with a white noise generator, but not by choice. It does a great job of drowning out other noises that keep me awake.

But right now I am waiting patiently for our janitor to finish vacuuming the hallway. I hate vacuuming and I hate sneezing so I am very appreciative that

a) someone is vacuuming
b) it's not me.

But I am trying to think and white noise is really not compatible with that. And I can't put on music to drown it out, my little stereo is not loud enough.

But man, vacuuming is one of those things you'd think we wouldn't need to do anymore. Whatever happened to filtered air and self-cleaning houses (and offices)? Hmmm?

This was supposed to be the future. Sheesh.

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When PI technical knowledge is really important.

This post was inspired by a discussion that I started (actually sort of an argument) somewhere else.

Physioprof wrote this in response to my original comment:

And by the way, MsPhD really, really, really needs to get past the canard that it is a failing of mentorship and lab leadership if a PI does not (or even cannot) sit down at the bench side by side with a trainee ("apprentice") and teach the trainee the physical process of performing a particular technique. This has nothing to do with being a good PI and an effective mentor. It bears no correlation with whether a PI is good at generating novel ideas or techniques.

And I actually agree with everything else he said after that.

I agree that these are different skills, but as Dr. J pointed out, we are NOT talking about having a PI sit down at the bench with the trainee.

Not at all.

Actually Dr. J's post very nicely makes that point.

We are NOT talking about generating novel ideas. But we ARE talking about the likelihood of success at testing them.

I just wanted to add one other point, from the point of view of a trainee, since some of these PIs seem to be totally unaware of the realities of just how fast technology is moving these days. And how dependent they are on postdocs (and grad students) to master the technology so they don't have to.

I know my PI absolutely takes this for granted. My PI knows this, to some extent, but I've seen evidence of just how dangerous this situation can be. This is one of the main reasons, I think, we're seeing so many retractions (especially from Science and Nature) now.

So here's my

Hypothesis: The severe disconnect between benchworker performance and PI assessment is a major flaw in our current system.

This is at least partly due to a general lack of technical understanding on the part of the PIs.

Allow me to elaborate (hey, it's my blog).

It really does matter quite a lot whether the technical advice is good, bad, or absent. And whether the PI is correctly assessing the quality of the data (which requires knowledge, believe it or not, of the techniques).

I think most PIs, whether they realize it or not, do wield a lot of authority. And that's especially dangerous when they're unaware of it.

Exhibit A.

One of my advisors is a great example. Most people try EVERYTHING she suggests, even the things that make no sense (without asking Pubmed or Google whether the concept is likely to work).

I know this is not her intention at all. She's just throwing out ideas.

She's good at ideas. She's not so good at planning the technical execution.

But she understands how to troubleshoot and she does some experiments herself.
In those cases she asks all the right questions and she gets things to work.

She's just not that good at guiding students and postdocs in experimental setup.

I can understand that. It can be hard, sometimes, to get in the mode of planning something. We all do this when we put off starting a new series of experiments - until you know you're really going to have to do it.

For a PI I guess the "really going to have to do it" needs to include the modifier [yourself] to really pack a punch.

Something about being one degree removed from the action just puts it out of her reach, and/or she's just too tired of telling students to do more controls and having them ignore her (I've seen that, too). So she doesn't bother anymore.

It's just sad to watch. And I'm sure it happens all the time as professors get older and more fed up.

Exhibit B.

I had something similar with another PI recently.

We discussed a very difficult experiment, which would be the "ideal experiment" if it weren't so technically unlikely to work, for reasons this PI does not grasp at all.

Instead I designed a similar but much easier experiment.
PI did not understand why I did that. At all.

But this PI does not want to know why (this is the kind of person who uses "technician" as a pejorative), so there was no point in trying to talk through all the mechanics.

I'm hoping that, when the experiment is done, the figure will help move the discussion in the right direction: away from "you don't listen to me" to "oh, I see why you did it this way."

That is usually what happens. This, I learned, the hard way. After being talked out of doing many experiments, and after banging my head against impossible experiments for years, only to conclude that it wasn't my fault but just due to the limits of the techniques.

But the point is really that it's frustrating to be constantly second-guessed by people who have

a) authority over your funding/lab space/future career success

b) no idea what they're talking about half the time.

I'm not sure if they all realize how discouraging they can be. Because we do look to them for advice. And confirmation of what's worth fighting for, and what's not.

It's a very strange psychological process, learning when/if to trust your Advisor, the Expert, and when/if to argue with or ignore them.

Or when you know there is no way they can help you get over that hump when you're stuck.

The worst thing to me, I think, is when they don't understand the technique, so they don't believe/like the real results, so they just assume you suck.

And maybe it's even worse because Joe Blow, in the row one bench over, is pretending like (or maybe even truly believes) his experiments are working - when he's really not doing any of it correctly. At all.

And everyone in the lab knows it, too. And everyone who sees the data knows it, but no one will say anything to the PI because they're all terrified of the whole shoot-the-messenger phenomenon.

They're all hoping that it won't make it through review.

But it does. Maybe because the reviewers are all PIs, too.

And then the paper is published. Then what do you do?

And the PI doesn't know the technique well enough to know that Joe's results aren't real.

This is one of the scariest pitfalls of not knowing the technical stuff. When the person in charge is totally snow-jobbed for lack of being bothered to learn how it's really done.

That is definitely how a PI ends up on the road to retraction. Because eventually, as they say, the truth will come out. Or bubble to the top, as the case may be.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Lunch break(down).

Yes, I am eating late today.

Yes, as you might guess from the title, I am not having a great week so far.

I think this is partly because I had unrealistically high hopes on Monday, which were all dashed yesterday and today.

So much for thinking positive?

Perhaps the saddest, most bloggable thing was talking to a near-tenure young female assistant professor.

She confessed to me that although she had the obligate C/N/S paper to get hired, she hasn't published much on her own (Pubmed confirms this) and is really on her last chance to get an R01. And her personal life isn't going so well, either. And she's clearly wondering whether she's going to be able to hang on to having her own lab.

One of the things that made me so sad about this was that her project was really novel and interesting. And I couldn't tell whether she was in this dire situation mostly through being inexperienced? But I don't want to blame the victim here, I learned that lesson already. So isn't it also partly the fault of her department for

a) hiring her


b) not giving her enough guidance/support as a young, clueless faculty member?

Maybe both?

It was very clear to me from talking to her that she did not know:

a) how to focus on ONE fundable, doable, affordable project and just do it

b) how to mentor students

c) how to write grants

d) how to start collaborations/ask for help from other labs to use their equipment and/or new techniques

e) that she should probably be trying to find a mentor.

So here is someone who is way ahead of me in some respects, but I've learned all these (essential, I think) lessons already as a postdoc (and d & e already as a grad student).

And meanwhile here I am having run-ins with the TorMentors who are telling me they now think it's going to take a miracle or two for me to get an academic position.

I'm more than a little astonished that they felt the need to bring this up with me in a very patronizing way, which means they must think I haven't considered (BOY, I MUST BE DOING A GREAT JOB OF HIDING IT!!) other options.

And I really don't believe in miracles.

So it's pretty hard to tune these people out. It's been one of those weeks again where I just feel shut out of the club, like I'm missing the Handbook of Unwritten Rules, don't have the password, etc.

Cold comfort to think academia has no idea what I could contribute if only they'd give me a chance.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Dear Collaborators

Dear Collaborators,

Working with you has been quite a learning experience.

Number One, you were somewhat difficult, but that's because we had to collaborate through our advisors and it was like a game of tin-can telephone. When we talked later without them getting in the middle, I was impressed with your work ethic.

Number Two, you were a misogynist jerk and I couldn't work with you. I'm glad someone else in my group was able to work with you and publish a nice paper. But I hope you get over your sexist tendencies (or burn in hell! Jerk!).

Number Three, you were awesome. You singlehandedly restored my faith in Science. I feel bad that our paper together did not end up in the best journal ever, since it was the most fun I've ever had doing science.

Number Four, you have been a lot of fun but also a struggle. And I think I have been, too, so it's only fair. We speak different languages, scientifically, and I think in spite of that we've done pretty well and had a mostly good time doing it. I hope our paper together will end up in the best journal ever (as we hope for every paper but especially now since I need one of those to get a job).

Number Five (and one other like you), I'm now regretting that we tried to work together. It will be a line on my CV, but I have learned an important lesson here, which is that it's not a good idea to collaborate with everyone who asks. I just hope nobody ever asks me to defend your work because I will have a hard time explaining that you never showed me a draft of the paper before you sent it out. (Without sounding Negative, that is.)

Number Six, I think it is sleazy that you keep editing the manuscript to add in superfluous citations to previous work from your lab that is only distantly related to what we're writing. You delete references to my previous work that are actually essential, and you put these other references in that undermine our interpretation of the current data. I am frustrated by working with you, but I have to put up with it or negotiate around it. I know it would be easier to just go along with you in the short-term, but we might pay for it when the paper is in review. So I have to think carefully about how to bring you around to my way of thinking. I know you are thinking you will continue to do the same (or just threaten me, because you know that will probably work, too).

Dear Collaborators, sometimes you make me love science and sometimes you make me really wish I were better with computers, so I could maybe sometimes do a whole project start-to-finish without being at the mercy of miscommunication flare-ups and other people's schedules and egos. My own scheduling and ego issues are enough, thank you very much.



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