Thursday, July 31, 2008

Arrogant wannabe.

Several commenters said it's typical of women to be the 'silent fixer.'

I've heard that, too.

I'm pretty sure that is NOT my problem.

These same commenters asked if I had made my ambitions known and/or asked to be promoted.

Yes, yes I have.

No, no it has not helped.

In fact, it got me branded Arrogant. And got me nowhere.

Apparently, my ambitions exceed my perceived (Note the qualifier!) abilities/achievements, and that means Arrogant.

At least for women.

I think there is some magical formula whereby if women are:

Extremely Nice + Sufficiently Self-Promoting + Gently Express Ambition = Success!

Maybe. Maybe it's not that simple. But I've seen a lot more success from women who fit the stereotype, at least outwardly, of being soft-spoken and shy, who suddenly learn to stand up for themselves and then everyone is impressed ==> Maybe she had it in her all along but we're so proud for bringing it out of her! She gets a JOB!

I think my problem is that my personality is not sufficiently Feminine:

Nice When I Can Muster It + Inconsistently Self-Promoting + Openly Ambitious = Arrogant.

Also, if anyone ever actually TOOK my advice, I'd be The Fixer.

Instead, I am just the wacko in the corner who makes suggestions everyone ignores. And that often includes PI.

Yesterday I reminded PI of something I had suggested a long time ago. THIS time it was a GOOD idea, apparently, but I actually got in TROUBLE because PI couldn't REMEMBER my having suggested it before!

I love it when I get blamed for not nagging often enough, to make up for other people's cluelessness & senility.

When I nag too often, I'm told I'm being Very Pushy.

Dr. J, that company job is sounding pretty darn good.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Leader of the pack?

So far, this has been one of those awful weeks. I can't believe it's only Wednesday.

I have been working my butt off and so far none of it feels like progress. At the end of the day, I try to pat myself on the back just for trying. I put in an honest day's work, I say. That's as much as anyone can ask for.

Today I will pick myself up and try again. One foot in front of the other.

But I am tired of the rivalries and bullshit.

My PI has favorites, and when the old favorites leave, there are new favorites, and I am never one of them. And I have been here too long not to notice the pattern. The favorites get favors, get promoted, and get out.

I would like to move up in the ranks, not as The Teacher's Pet, but as

"Yes, MsPhD deserves to have her outstanding ideas and skills promoted internationally!"

Instead I have to listen to my labmates complain about stupid, fixable problems. But there's no point, I'm learning, in trying to help them. They just want to vent, I guess. In fact, I get the strong impression that my labmates don't want my advice at all, maybe just because it comes from me. Which makes my so-called experience and expertise feel completely futile.

I am Jack's useless PhD.

I wonder if this is what it's like to be a PI. I have worked in labs where the PI made lots of good suggestions, but the lab members ignored them all. To me, this is a nightmare made real. It would completely defeat the purpose.

I have this fear that I am too much like my father. He is in the sort of profession where there are technical experts and there are managers.

The Managers are idiots, in this case, but good salesmen. They have different kinds of skills, which is important, but they don't have the ability to understand the technical aspects. At all.

Anyone smarter is assigned to a technical position.

The problem is that the technical experts are paid less and have less say in what projects get done, they're just stuck trying to make the projects work once they are decided upon.

My father has spent his whole career trying to figure out how to do something that happens only rarely: to get promoted into a Manager-type position from a technical-type position. Finally now, towards the end of his career, he is moving up. And he is much happier than he used to be.

But what if I am just like him? If that's true, it doesn't help me if I'm good at troubleshooting, it actually hurts me from reaching my goal.

I keep envisioning myself as a tiny cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, and trying to imagine what that would be like as a career.

Keeping in mind, I'm in that totally awkward position: PI has said in private that my suggestions, while rarely appreciated by my labmates, are always appreciated by my PI.

But I'm still not receiving any of the favors awarded to the Favorites. So where does that leave me? Technical Expert exploited by Manager?

I'm afraid so, but I don't know what to do about it.

So while it bothers me that I'm clearly an outsider from my peers, the truth is that my labmates will come and go, and probably more than half will not stay in academia (and some will not stay in research or science-related fields at all).

I have learned the hard way that you can put a lot of effort into relationships in science, only to have them never pay off in any useful way.

I have helped people and not gotten even an acknowledgment, and I have befriended people who weren't there when I needed them.

I have a few good friends whom I see only rarely, but I am supposed to be satisfied with that because I can't expect all my professional colleagues to be my buddies.

Postdoc Mantra 1: I am not supposed to care whether my peers respect or like me.

And I am not supposed to care that they don't know what they're doing, no matter how much time and NIH money I witness them wasting.

Postdoc Mantra 2: It is not my job to fix these things, even if I know how.

All I'm supposed to care about is that PI is here to stay, and if I want to be an academic, I have to stay on PI's radar and good graces.

But man, I am sick and tired of it.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How would you fare if science were a meritocracy?

First, in answer to the summer student who wants to submit a co-first author paper:

Use asterisks. You'll see examples of this all over the literature, and it will look like this (sorry I won't do it in LaTeX here!):

Name, Yours*, Name, Friend's*, Name, Supervisor, Name, Figurehead PI.

Name of University.

*These authors contributed equally to this work.


Anon asked in a comment:

What would be your opinion on a scenario in which all PhDs/postdocs were qualified individuals who actually wrote their own papers and grants? Surely, of all the people who actually make it to the coveted tenured positions, some people actually deserved it. My question is basically if the system only allows a chosen few to ascend, what do the rest of us hardworking, decent scientists do? Clearly, there are biases that prevent this from happening in reality. I'm just saying if these egregious offenses weren't happening, would you feel any different? Like, ok, I gave it my best shot but it just wasn't meant to be. Or maybe something else?

Honestly I haven't thought about this in a long time.

I would have quit before/during grad school if I thought that, objectively speaking, everyone else was better than me and therefore I had no shot at a job in this business.

In fact, I had no expectation of a job when I started my postdoc. I was kind of figuring I would hate it, the way I hated grad school.

But you know how YFS is, she had to do the experiment.

Instead I had this bizarre realization: I am good at what I do. (Maybe even really good!)

It took me a while to figure this out.

Not many people have ever given me compliments on my work, until very recently.

But during my postdoc, I've gotten lots of little clues that I'm doing things the right way.

1. Lots of people cite one of my papers from grad school. In fact, it is my thesis advisor's most-cited publication of all time (so far!). This was a weird little ego boost, since to this day, when I go to meetings, most people have not heard of me or my advisor. But the ones who have, know of us because of that paper.

The whole idea of that paper was my idea, not my advisor's. Nobody knows that from looking at my CV (!), but it is nice for me to know that I have good ideas and I know how to test them.

2. After I left my thesis lab, the senior postdoc who had never really been friendly admitted to me that nothing got done after I left. She hadn't realized, until I was gone, that I was the one ordering anything when we ran out, refilling the tip boxes, autoclaving everything, taking out the biohazard trash, making all the buffers, etc.

Needless to say, I had to laugh at that. Minor victories! Not only did I keep my work going, I kept everyone else's going, too. Not to underestimate the amount of work it takes to set up and fund a lab and hire people (a lot), but there's no question that I could run a lab, if I had one of my own.

3. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to do an experiment that would test one of the main hypotheses of my thesis more directly than had been possible at the time. Hooray for technological advances!

And, yes you guessed it. It worked! Hooray for confirmation! That was very satisfying.

Even if it's not the sort of thing I could publish on its own, it was very nice to get that result.

(I'll admit though, one thought that crossed my mind was, "Okay, that's my contribution, I can quit now!")

4. More minor victories: friends who come to me to help troubleshoot their experiments. I have one friend, a couple years ahead of me, who needed to learn some basic molecular biology (not her field). So she came to me. And we got her stuff going.

My proudest moment of that whole story: when she told me she was helping other people do their molecular biology now, using my protocols.

Another random example, I have a grad student friend right now who swears her project would not be working if I hadn't given her a couple of little suggestions along the way (and she actually followed them!).

This got me thinking that yes, I do have the expertise, I could be a good advisor. I like that part of the job.

5. This is the last one, because my timer is about to beep. I think I've mentioned it before on this blog, when someone told me they never believed my data before, because they could never get a certain (critical) technique to work that well.

I was totally baffled by this, since it was sort of a backhanded compliment. (Because it was brought up in the context of, now they believe me....!)

It had never occurred to me that not everyone's data looked that good. I mean, sure, I've read lots of papers with crappy looking data and wondered why it looked so bad. But it took a long time for me to realize I'm good at that technique, and it's actually a useful skill.

It is one of my (last remaining?) missions in science to get everyone to learn how to do it the way I do, and get great results like I do.

So I guess my point is, I think if science were a meritocracy, I would be one of the chosen few. Otherwise I would have quit by now. Any rational person would!

But since science is not a meritocracy, I might quit any day now. As any rational person would.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Fond memories of college.

This post was inspired by FSP's post about textbooks. It got kind of long so I put it over here instead.

Basically she was writing about how students complain that textbooks are too expensive. Most of the 27 comments there so far seemed to agree, that textbooks were expensive and only useful for one semester, maybe not even a semester if the professor didn't use them effectively (which seems to be the norm?).

I guess I was unusually lucky and/or careful about which classes I took.

My school was fantastic about making class evaluations available, and most professors handed out a syllabus on the first day and/or required texts were clearly marked in the bookstore.

You could always find out ahead of time which professors sucked, and which ones tended to pick the expensive, worthless textbooks. That was a sure sign that the professor would suck, no matter what the evaluations said.

Although in a previous post I considered throwing them all away, with few exceptions, I still have all my college texts, for both electives and non-electives. They were all really well written, and my professors used them effectively. If they didn't, I read them anyway. None were disappointing.

I was very serious about college: I went with a long view in mind. I deliberately chose classes based on what I always wanted to know or thought I would need to know later. I already knew what I wanted to do: run my own research lab. I figured my goal was to tool up with a good fundamental understanding of basic skills. And for the most part, I think I achieved that.

Oh sure, there are some classes I wish now that I could have taken, and others that were required but useless. But I can honestly say I can only think of one or two that were a total waste of time.

(unlike most of the 12 years in public school prior to that...)

I enjoyed being able to buy my textbooks, and discovered that for the price, it was worth it to be able to highlight and write in them, which I couldn't do in public school prior to that, and which I found greatly increased my connection with the material.

For the first time, I really felt engaged. I felt like I was finally not just allowed, in the privacy of my room, to think on my own. I was encouraged, I was challenged, I was inspired! Thinking for myself works really well for me!

(I felt smart, for the first time, in college, and it was fun to feel smart...)

And yes, compared to the outrageous price of tuition, the cost of the textbooks seemed a small price to pay for learning. Plus, you got something tangible! Learning you can actually hold in your hand!

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

More ways for research to die.

More atrocities from the trenches-

I'm hearing from young faculty at R1 or near-R1 universities that their departments are adding more (irrelevant) criteria to their tenure reviews and candidate searches because of a disturbing trend.

Apparently more and more of the last generation of hires are so burned out, that by the time they get tenure, they shut down their labs, stop doing research, and declare from now on that they will only be teaching.

Then the department is screwed, because they sank all this startup money into this person, and now they can't afford to hire anyone new, even if they have plenty of candidates who are actually doing research.

Of course, this 'backup plan' only works at places where your salary is covered by teaching a minimum courseload every year.

Still, I thought this was bizarre, and kind of funny in a horrible way, and I had never heard of it before.

I could just picture these newly tenured faculty, smoke still coming out of their ears they're so burned out, saying

Take that, stupid broken system! We're going to sit on our asses and to hell with this bullshit about a research career! Muahahaha!

(Not to say that teaching isn't hard work too, but assuming that they aren't taking on a double load of teaching now that they have no lab management or funding obligations.)

I've heard plenty of stories about people getting tenure and then quitting to go to industry.

You've heard of these people, they go to places like Genentech. Initially you wonder why, but then you think, $$$$$$. Oh, I get it.

But I thought this teaching-only solution was a new twist, especially at research universities.

Is this happening at your university? I haven't heard of it happening at mine, yet.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Postdoctoral Multitasking.

Amanda posted a comment over at FSP's post on this topic asking to hear more about how to do this.

When I started this blog (eons ago), I sometimes did posts on a "typical day in the life" format.

Today, for example, I had a meeting this morning (about 1 hour), right now I'm taking a break, then I'll go do some benchwork (about 1 hour), get lunch, (less than 1 hour) do a little reading/thinking for ~ 2 hours (I have a TON of reading to do this week!), and then go collect some data on samples I made yesterday (~ 2-3 hours). If the data look good, I'll spend ~2 hours analyzing them. If not, I'll read some more and think about what to do differently next time.

This is a pretty typical day for me.

Some of the things we do are perfect for multitasking. FSP has written about this before, I think, and I probably have too.

One of the key things to learn is the 5-minute trick. You can get a lot done in 5 minutes if you're good at switching gears. I have always been like this, maybe because I'm a little bit ADD (?).

If you can't do 5 minutes, start with 30 minutes or 1 hour. I used to routinely do a western blot (long 1-3 hour incubations waiting for gel to run and then transfer and then incubate in antibody) and while that was going, do another type of experiment with shorter incubations (say 30-60 minutes each) and while those were all going, read papers. Seriously. Nested multitasking is the best if you can time it just right. Even if all you have are 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, you can read through half a paper before you have to start the next step. I promise you'll be amazed at how much you can get done if you start timing yourself.

In fact, I've had some interesting chats with people about whether or not to use a timer in lab. Who cares if my blot goes an extra 15 minutes, they say? To which I say, that is 15 minutes you just wasted, isn't it?

I stay on task AND make sure my gels don't run off by using a timer. I adore 3-button timers. That little beeping voice makes you aware.

In an average day, I work on 3 experiments, sometimes one for each of my projects. I don't usually complete 3 experiments in a day, since most of the things I do now require overnight steps, etc. But that's okay!

The key to multitasking, as far as I can tell, is thinking about how long each step will take, and planning everything before you start. Make sure you leave room for error (e.g. we ran out of methanol and nobody ordered more and now I have to spend 30 minutes running around borrowing some).

I always say if you can cook, you can do well in lab. It's the same idea. Nobody likes it when you finish the main dish and the potatoes won't be done for another hour. So you start the potatoes first. It's really that simple.

But you have to know the techniques involved. It's hard to multitask (and I wouldn't recommend it) with all new techniques.

For those, I say do one thing at a time, at least the first time through, until you know what to anticipate.

For writing, you can do the same thing. Set a timer. I actually found some cute applications online that let you set multiple taskbars for writing, so you can keep track of how long you've been working on several projects plus keep yourself from cheating by setting a tracker for how long you spent blogging (guilty) or checking email.

The best writers will tell you, one hour a day can be enough to finish most projects relatively quickly, if it's a productive hour. I think the most common misconception about writing is that it takes a lot of time. I always say writing does not take a long time, thinking about what to write is the hard part, and you can do that fast if you have a good strategy for making decisions.

I could do a whole blog post on how I write, but since I'm no Einstein with lots of one-word-journal papers, I can't believe anybody cares! Maybe you should ask someone more Successful about that.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Negotiating for space.

I was talking to some assistant professors recently about lab space, and what I heard really bothered me. I'm hoping the blogosphere can help come up with some rules to live by.

1. It sounds like it's quite common for faculty to be hired without having ever seen their assigned lab space. This, first of all, seems very strange to me. Do they only show it to you if you ask?

2. I've heard many young faculty are hired and arrive into 'temporary' lab space while waiting for a new building to be completed. "Temporary" sounds like it usually means ~ 2 years. Since it's temporary, they have no choice about what space they get and might not have seen it.

3. I've seen many young faculty don't get the space they were promised, but how they handle this can be a bag of worms.

Apparently, asking to be given the number of benches you were promised can tag you as 'pushy'. This is especially bad for women.

Not asking can mean you're at the mercy of whomever you are 'sharing' with, which means you might gain the space eventually, but only if you're lucky and your lab neighbors are decent human beings.

What do you do if they're not?

4. It sounds like these joint/continuous lab spaces (many benches, no walls) are more common than they used to be.

I don't like this arrangement.

I think at least some intermediate or half-walls can be better than no walls.

While I don't mind being completely isolated, because I know there are other ways to meet people, this can be less desirable for equipment sharing and other reasons.

But the idea of (assuming I get any faculty interviews) being offered a couple of benches in the middle of some raucous, enormous shared lab terrifies me.

I wouldn't want to work like that as a grad student or a postdoc, so why would I want to work like that as a PI?

Am I in the minority nowadays? Is this just my inner hermit rebelling against the communal way of life?

I mean, I know there's more emphasis than ever on collegiality and all that, but I'm not convinced we have to design labs like the orphanage in Annie or allow conditions like freshman dorms, in order to, what? Facilitate collaborations? Save money? Steal reagents from each other?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More postdoc fellowship corruption stories.

Yes, this weekend I heard two more examples (from different labs), with a twist.

In the past, I've mentioned the postdocs who get fellowships because their advisors write the whole thing for them. And the postdocs who get fellowships just because of their advisor's NAME. I'm pretty sure some of my funding was awarded to me as much because of my advisor's name as anything else. But at least I wrote it myself.

This time, I heard about one postdoc whose advisor told him he has to write a fellowship that will be submitted in another postdoc's name. He basically told him he has no choice about this, and made a not-so-veiled threat alluding to recommendation letters and the like.

The other postdoc found out her data is being submitted as supporting material for another postdoc's fellowship application. Although her work is being reviewed for publication, it is not yet published. I guess they figure (probably rightly so) that chances are slim anyone will realize whose data it is. Nobody checks. And there's nothing she can do about it.

This stuff just makes me furious. The system is SO FUCKED UP, and nobody notices.

And then these people, who are apparently incapable of

a) doing their own experiments
b) writing their own proposals

get prestigious fellowships.

Why does that matter, you might ask? It's just a fellowship, right? Only a few years of funding?

The thing is, that one fellowship can make ALL the difference in who gets what job later on. The right fellowship can lead to all kinds of opportunities. It opens doors.

Because they have this nice line on their CV, everyone just assumes they're smarter and more capable than the rest.

What a bunch of bullshit.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Scientiae post: Transitions

Somehow have never managed to do one of these before, so here goes.

The topic was:

What big (or small) transitions have happened in your life? Or are you anticipating a big transition?

• How did it affect you? (Physically, emotionally, psychologically, locationally..)

• What was the outcome?

• Did you handle it well? If so, how did it help? If not, what could you have done differently?

• What fears or hopes did you have? Did they come to be?

I like Scientiae. I really like this topic. I guess doing one of these might be a transition of sorts. I hope to do more in the future.

I think about transitions all the time. I have never felt settled since the first time my family moved when I was in junior high. Nowhere has really ever felt like home since then.

I used to always be the sort of person who envisioned my future life. I was very driven and it kept me going, but I was terrible at living in the now.

These days, I'm less good at picturing my future, and tend to get stuck in regrets about the past. You could say my life has been a long series of bumpy transitions.

So while I should be oyster-ifically expecting a Big Transition in my career to a faculty position, most of me doubts that it will ever happen.

Lately I feel like I've hit the ground so many times, and in the past I always bounced back. But now I'm just covered with bruises. I don't feel very bouncy anymore. I look back at my past self and think, how the hell did I do that?

When I started grad school, I had a physical reaction to the transition of moving. I was physically ill, and never did find out whether it was food poisoning, stress, or something else altogether. The brilliant MDs who ran a bunch of tests on me had no idea what it was. Thanks, US healthcare!

Eventually it went away.

Mostly I think my body was trying to tell me STOP NOW, DON'T DO THIS!! But I was just surprised and terrified and, uncharacteristically just in the moment of being in pain. Pain is very interesting that way, it can really stop time.

And I had no idea how much more emotional and psychological abuse was in store for me. Looking back, it seems obvious that the mystery pain was a bad sign.


Somewhere along the line I transitioned to confidence. For me, that was the best achievement, and almost made the whole grad school debacle worthwhile. I am confident in my science.

But somewhere along the line, where I used to be personally confident, I transitioned to self-doubt. And got stuck there.

Mostly I think at its root, the problem is that I doubt whether I really want to be a Professor. Not that I dislike science. Contrary to what certain journalists have claimed recently, I know plenty of women who love science.

No, I am one of those who consider, quite frequently, quitting because of the culture.

I am tired of working with assholes. And I include in that term both men and women.

I can see all too clearly how this culture is not necessary or sufficient for good science to get done.

So I have never understood why everyone says I should just put up with it.

And that it's perfectly reasonable, even NORMAL, to hate it.

Maybe most of the successful scientists don't mind because they have the sensitivity of a block of wood (?).

So I can't help wanting science to change. I would like to transition to doing something more about changing it, hence the try-for-faculty-position approach.

Alternatively, I would like to be able to transition to letting it go.

I don't think I will ever transition to just accepting the bullshit. In a way, I hope I don't.

But it's too bad, because I feel stuck. Here I have this awesome project that I think is of earth-shaking importance. And I am slowly, slowly convincing others that I'm onto something with this project.

But lately I feel myself slipping toward the belief that, even if I quit, it won't matter because eventually somebody else will work on it. So then everybody wins, right?

On the other hand, which will I regret more? Quitting now?

Or wasting more years of my life being unhappy and frustrated so much of the time?

The other day I had a dream that I drove my car off a cliff in a rainstorm. At first I was scared, but then I realized I was dreaming and thought of Thelma and Louise, closed my eyes, and relaxed.

In dream mythology, your car represents your career.

Was I dreaming about committing career suicide? Predicting a fatal outcome beyond my control? Or just having a moment of fear?


Another transition I've noticed is that when I was younger and kept a diary, I was very black-and-white about everything.

I had strong opinions and did not mind arguing my point.

Somewhere along the line I decided most things are gray. But not everything. A good example of something that seemed gray to me before, but is now black-and-white, was not being aware of sexism before, to being acutely aware of it. All the time.

While not being aware of it hurt my career, in some ways I think being aware of it has hurt my career more, just because it is one of the last remaining things that can really piss me off. And there's still very little I can do about it.

But once you see it, you can't go back.

Another major transition, related to my realization that I was being discriminated against, has both helped and hurt my career. While I once enjoyed verbal sparring, I've learned to hate it. It's not that I don't have strong opinions, but I definitely transitioned to seeing things from more than one side. I get bored with people who don't, and usually these are the most vocal opponents.

I think this transition was partly brought on by being aware of sexism, since I got smacked a few times for defending myself in ways I had learned growing up, when I often found myself arguing with boys in school. This does not fly, apparently, for women in science. My favorite is when I stand up for myself and they tell me I'm "being defensive" (to which I always want to say, "But you attacked me!").

But doesn't help to say nothing, which is in many ways what I've done in recent years.

It's another typical battered woman response, and I am trying to transition to some happy medium where I can speak my mind in a forceful but, god help us all, culturally acceptable way for a woman.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sort of schadenfraude.

Our lab had a minor, non-dangerous disaster today.

This happens sometimes in science, there are so many things that can go wrong. Some are stupid, some are klutzy, and sometimes that's just the way it goes. Equipment breaks, people make mistakes, stuff falls on the floor, and so on.

I am perhaps somewhat unusual in that I am typically pretty calm about these kinds of things when they were a) unpredictable, b) unavoidable or c) honest mistakes.

It's research because you have to do everything a few times anyway. So what's one more, in the grand scheme of things?

Disasters are science are not usually life-or-death for the scientists involved. They really only suck for a few reasons:

a) somebody gets injured
b) something broken will take a long time to fix/replace
c) a long-term experiment has to be done over, wasting a lot of time and effort
d) something broken is irreplaceable (unusual but happens sometimes)
e) something broken is too expensive to replace in the forseeable future, maybe not ever

In this case, there were no injuries, and nothing was broken, so it was 'minor' except in the sense of time lost. Which is admittedly still really annoying.

[The only time I get really pissed off is when somebody who should know better, according to their title/payscale, did not know or care and did something ignorant or destructive out of sheer apathy/stupidity, which ruined some long-term laborious experiment of mine. This has only ever happened to me once, but nobody seemed to understand that my reaction was a) unusual and b) totally justified.]

But today I am a bad person because I honestly don't really care ONLY because I am soooo glad that by some dumb luck, this particular disaster will not affect me or my work.

It would have been very bad for my experiments, and I do feel bad for the people whose experiments are ruined.

But I don't feel that bad. Because I am SO glad that it didn't happen to me.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Stupid Question

Quick, what would you do? I can't decide.

My journal subscriptions are coming up for renewal. This is, god willing, the last year I am eligible for cheap subscriptions as a Postdoc.

Off and on, I have chosen to get hard copies. There are goods and bads to doing this.

I hate junk email. I don't like reading TOCs in my inbox. It's rare that I want to deal with clicking on the link and going to my web browser, blah blah blah.

I also hate reading papers online. Abstracts, okay, but I don't have a big monitor and I don't really like sitting at a desk. I'd much rather take a pile of paper and flop down on my couch at home!

So I decided, for these and other reasons, that hard copies are better. The chances that I will look through them are much better than if I have to remember to look online, and I like that I often find things I wasn't looking for.

The main danger I can see with using RSS feeders and preset searches is that you end up filtering out serendipity.

The drawback, of course, is the clutter. Physical information overload. If I get hard copies and don't have time to read them, they just pile up. And up and up and up.

So now I am torn about whether to renew, since of course for most things I can download papers for free via my institution. It's less aesthetically pleasing, but it works well enough.

I'm tempted to just not renew, save my piddling salary for better things, and look online when the mood strikes.

What do you do?

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Cultivating Apathy.

Already this morning, I have heard a few horror stories that in the past would have made me really upset.

But now, I just don't care.

While watching my grad students friends freak out about committee meetings the last few weeks, I was struck by how little I cared about their agony. I used to be such a sympathetic person, I once fainted when I saw my roommate injure herself by accident. I don't mind the sight of blood, I was literally faint at seeing her in pain and being powerless to stop it.

And now, I just don't care. It's quite bizarre.

This morning I heard about a lab accident, which caused a permanent and pretty serious injury to an acquaintance. It's a sad story, but I was oddly unmoved. In the past, I would have had some kind of emotional reaction, and usually a physical one too.

Is my empathy broken? Am I becoming a PI?

Then I heard a couple other stories about the usual kind of lab bullshit and PI politics that used to make me really angry.

But I am not surprised.

And I just don't care.

I am, in a purely objective way, somewhat worried about this degree of apathy.

Is this why I'm so unexcited about my science lately? Why I just feel like I'm going through the motions?

On the other hand, watching grad students spontaneously combust under their own fear, pride and misguided ambition, I can see how apathy can be a protective and almost more mature response.

If you don't get upset, you can't sabotage yourself.

In the past, I would eventually reach apathy only AFTER having a meltdown (or blowup). As I got older, I moved my meltdowns and blowups behind closed doors, but I still had them pretty frequently.

Now it's pretty rare. I seem to go straight to the I Don't Care, and stay there.

Sometimes later, after replaying the events over and over in my head (whether I want to or not), I realized that I am indeed at least mildly annoyed. Maybe deeply insulted, even, but I recognize that getting upset gets me nowhere.

It's an interesting transition. I'm curious to see if it will last. In some ways, it's a relief to be so detached. I know I am much calmer, and more productive when I am not wasting time having meltdowns. I'm also more useful in advising others in this capacity than in my previous, highly combustible state.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tidbits of ranting and advice.

Rant for you: Why do reagents that worked when they were home made suck for so much more money when they go commercial? And why do we put up with it? Is the quality of science going generally downhill, or is it just my impression that commercialization is bad?

Advice for me: Got some good advice from a friend about how to transition from postdoc to Job Candidate Extraordinaire. She said Be One of Them.

Then she said this, and I should probably get it tattooed on my arm:

Don't solicit feedback. That only yields criticism. Solicit praise!

In other words, once you've passed the point of needing advice, make a point to advertise that you're not asking for people older and wiser than you to pat you on the head.

Make a point of tooting your own horn!

Rant for me: Why am I ALWAYS tired? And why don't I have one of those mutations that lets me get by on only 2 hours of sleep a night? I have a friend like this, and she is perfectly normal aside from all the hobbies she took up to fill those extra 6 hours in the middle of the night when the rest of the world is out cold.

So unfair! I would get so much more done if I didn't have to sleep!

This morning I deliberately slept an extra half-hour and even that felt like a huge improvement. I can only imagine how much better off I would be with another full hour of glorious sleep!

Advice for you: Don't freak out about committee meetings. It's that season at my university, all the grad students are convening their thesis committees for the first time, or passing their oral exams, or whatever. The girls are all freaking out, and all are passing with flying colors. It's funny because they vastly overestimate how much data they are expected to have at this point in their careers (none!). They don't listen to me though.

The only guy I know who did this recently did not freak out, and ended up having to re-take his exam. I'm not convinced that freaking out is required to do a good job, just a little bit of preparation. He did not listen to me about preparing.

Here's a piece of advice, grad students: listen to your postdoc friends! We've been there! We know how much freaking out is involved, and how much is actually required (very little!)

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Punishment and reward.

Today, I am gearing up to do some painful science stuff.

It is going to suck, but I am going to make myself do it, because I can't put it off any longer.

It's not repetitive stress injury painful, it's mentally and emotionally painful.

It's philosophically, morally painful to be forced to slog through some incredibly horrible science and document everything that's wrong with it.

I didn't make it to the gym last night, but tonight I am going to need it because I will be royally pissed off by the time today is over.

Despite my best efforts, I will have a very hard time not noticing how much money and time has been wasted on this horrible example of how not to do science.

However, with the goal of good-attitude-yields-good-karma, I am trying to take a merciful approach.

I will choose to assume that these people just didn't know any better, and not just at the beginning when they clearly screwed up. I will also choose to assume that they didn't deliberately go out of their way to try to hide their screwup. They just really didn't know any better. Right?

Yes, I am trying to give them the benefit of the stupid-is-as-stupid-does kind of doubt.


I am ignoring that these people have labs, and grants, and faculty positions. I am ignoring that they probably should have none of those things if the system worked the way it should.

Ignoring is bliss.


In better news, I am really enjoying this book and will be rewarding myself later by reading some more of it.

In some ways, I find this book a lot more uplifting and empowering than some of the more angry books I've been reading lately on bias and how it holds us back.

Reading those other books was helpful in arming me with the studies showing that indeed, bias is a factor and we have to account for it and figure out how to work around it.

This book is different because it is FUNNY and the author gives some very specific advice on how to change your attitude, not in a pollyanna way but in a practical New Yorker no-bullshit kinda way.

Yup, this author is my kind of person. I would like to meet her someday.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Slow day.

Maybe because I was tired, got no data and nothing interesting happened, today felt about a thousand hours long.

And yet, here we are and it's almost over.

Now the big debate: stick around just for appearances? Maybe just a little longer.

Drag self to the gym? Definitely should.

Go to bed early? Really, really want to.

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It could be worse.

Did not sleep well last night, so I dragged myself to lab today feeling tired, achy, and old before my time.

Did a few necessary things before checking my email, and then I had to laugh.

My mother wrote me: a laundry list of various ailments afflicting almost all the members of my family. Nothing too serious or surprising, just lots of moaning and groaning.

So yeah, complaining runs in my family.

And reading that made me feel relatively healthy by comparison!

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Work is its own reward.

It's funny how sometimes the thing you've been dreading is exactly what you needed.

I was not looking forward to my experiments this week. I wanted the data but not the tedium. I dreaded the repetitive, the brainless pipetting, for these kinds of experiments. All I could picture was boredom and wrist strain.

I was complaining that, despite trying to take some time off of lab on the weekends, I needed more time to think. I thought I needed more time away.

Stupid me. I forgot how peaceful and relaxing meditative movements can be: more lab work was exactly what I needed.

It's nice to remember how much I like to commune with my samples, get a little lost in my data. It's nice to get paid to daydream about what might be happening in my samples, and what my options are for what to do next - almost endless possibilities.

Decisions, decisions.

I'm looking forward, this week, to more of this kind of quiet. It's an iPod bubble, so not exactly the same as walking in a deserted forest. My labmates are not exactly meditative types. But I'll take what I can get.

My hope is that, as has always happened in the past, if I keep following these results, I'll have one of those lightbulb moments. You know the kind I mean.

When the idea just grabs you and it's suddenly clear exactly what you need to do, and you can't rest until you have the answer.

You know, what makes you want to stay in lab until bedtime and you only force yourself to go home because you know that technically, sleep is important. And technically, you still need to eat.

You dream about your data, make plans in the shower. And run out the door in the morning, hair still wet, wearing whatever clothes are clean enough, to go develop that film or pick those colonies.

You know, the kind of thing that makes you start scheming. Do you really need those overnight incubations? Can you can make it go faster? Faster! Can you put it on a rocker, raise the temperature? Shake it harder! Why wait a day or a week for the answer? It's too long!

How come nobody ever thought of this before??!

Right now it's a little foggy, but the clouds are starting to lift. At least now, even if I don't know which way to go, I know how I'm going to get there.

One foot in the front of the other.

And now I'm off to lab. On a Sunday. Take that, weekends off!

Enlightenment is wayyy better than leisure.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Where's the fire?

Usually my favorite part about science is when I get excited about an idea or an experiment and I just have to know.

Not having much of that this week, and I need it.

I have some techniques for finding things to get excited about. I read papers, I do open-ended experiments, I talk to people about my work and see what kinds of questions they ask.

Sometimes other people's questions are good ones, sometimes they just spark better questions for me or remind me of old pet ideas of mine that need to be revisited.

I'm trying all those things this week, hoping to get excited. Because right now it all feels like WORK. Drudgery would not be an overstatement.

Think long dirt road in the middle of nowhere, add a slow drizzling rain and you get: slogging through mud. A long, muddy road in the middle of nowhere.

Sometimes research is like that.

And I have thought about getting a student. I usually find this really inspiring, but for various reasons I don't have one right now. I'm not sure if I should, except for this one temptation to borrow that quality of inquiring minds want to know.

I did take some time off the last couple of weekends, and while that can be rejuvenating, it doesn't get me fired up to come back and start pipetting madly.

And I have lots of questions I could try to answer with my research, but right now none of them are burning brightly.

I think part of the problem is this nagging feeling of Who Cares?

This is often a problem in basic research, where the public doesn't know what we do and usually our findings take decades to reach some kind of useful application. We don't really get to see the effect of our labor on any aspect of daily life.

Sometimes it's really nice just to have other researchers tell me they think my work is exciting. And that does happen from time to time. Ideally I would like it to happen at least once a week. In fact I heard it yesterday.


But ultimately I'm pretty bad at caring what other people think.

And ultimately I'm the one who has to be excited enough to come in every day and get things going. ME. I have to be convinced that it's supercool stuff I'm doing.

Even if not all of the actual doing is actually fun. That's why they call it work.

So I'm here, and things are going, but I'm running on fake excitement right now.

I'm thinking I will have to resort to my most time-honored method of making drudgery more fun: plugging something upbeat into the iPod, and reminding myself that no matter how tedious the pipetting might be today, it would be a lot worse to work in the fast food industry or on an assembly line. Or in a cubicle with nothing but spreadsheets and TPS reports.

Hey, it got me through grad school, so there must be something to it.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nope, you win.

Yesterday I updated my RSS reader for the first time in about 6 months. I don't usually read science articles this way, but once upon a time I set up a bunch of automatic searches for friends and topics I care about most.

In the last 6 months, my advisor was listed on 20 publications. None of them were mine. Nevermind that I started delivering drafts of my paper more than 6 months ago, and started getting feedback after 4 months of that.

Another friend also had 20 papers from his relatively young lab as a new professor. I'm so proud!


While looking over these lists, I noticed something interesting: despite having no new first-author publications, MrPhD has now surpassed me in the grand total of publications, because he has more papers on which he is a middle author.

For almost every project in his lab that he has contributed to, MrPhD was made an author. He says they usually tell him up front that he'll be an author.

I, on the other hand, have learned to ask, or risk wasting my time, when I should be working on my own projects. This is true regardless of whose lab wants my help (my own or someone else's).

I am often told I'm being greedy when I ask up front whether I'll be an author. But I'm often asked to 'help' by doing time-consuming work that is not always acknowledged as traditionally worthy of authorship (i.e. not comprising a figure).

My uncredited contributions in the past have ranged from doing pilot experiments that formed the basis for a high-impact paper, to developing a method from scratch, to analyzing other people's data sets.

So now sometimes I ask.

And sometimes when I ask about authorship, they get mad and call me names, but ultimately make me an author anyway.

Did I win there?

Nope, not really. Middle-authorship won't help me that much, and all I've done is reinforce my reputation for being Difficult.

Another damned-if-you-do-or-don't. And probably doesn't do much to help any future YFSs those people might consider having as collaborators.

So I've learned it's sometimes better to just not 'help' people who do not offer me authorship up front.

Asking just gets me in trouble, but not asking gets me nowhere.

So then I just say I'm too busy, sorry.

But that also tags me as Difficult while Joe Schmoe, who makes time to help AND gets co-authorship, is a Team Player.

I have to wonder why I'm constantly asked to provide scientific support for free.
When MrPhD contributes similarly, at least he gets 'paid.'

I'd be a Team Player too if I got paid to do it.


In the last few years, there were a few of what I'll call Alliances among a handful of male postdocs in our department, who consistently listed each other as co-authors on all their papers, and thus ended up with many more publications on their CVs than they would have had otherwise. In most cases, they contributed small things to each others' work (usually not more than 1 figure worth).

They all have jobs now. Two got multiple first-author papers, and they're both at top-tier places.

The other three got their one requisite biggish first-author paper and several middle-author credits. They all ended up with decent jobs at places I would not mind working.


I was thinking about this again because the other day I overheard a senior grad student (SGS) conferring with Newest Male Postdoc (NMP) about some experiments that NMP is apparently doing for SGS's latest paper.

I noticed because I had offered, about a year ago, to help SGS do these kinds of experiments. As it is, now I'm too busy anyway.

But how much do you wanna bet that NMP will be listed on this paper as a co-author?

Meanwhile I'm helping Newest Female Postdoc (NFP) with her experiments and fully expecting... an acknowledgment. If I'm lucky.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

No reply necessary

A couple of my informal mentors emailed recently to ask how I'm doing, how things are going, and so on (they don't know I have a blog!).

In both cases I responded pretty openly, saying

yeah things have been nightmarish but a couple of things are better, even though I'm still not where I want to be with my life.

And you know, I'm just trying to keep a sense of humor about the worst parts.

Neither one replied. It has been, I don't know, two weeks.

I want to email them and say

um, guys? Why bother emailing to ask how I'm doing, if you

a) don't want to know?
b) can't be bothered to tell me how you're doing or actually give me any advice?

And does it actually, I don't know, assuage your guilt to at least check in? Or was this to settle some kind of bet about whether I've quit science yet?

And then I realized, actually I don't need these people to reply. If they have no advice, that's fine.

I get plenty of advice and support from the blogosphere.

To those of you fellow bloggers who are always telling me to keep going, thanks. I've learned a lot from reading your blogs and comments here.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

4 random vignettes

1. Overheard my advisor saying some things I wish I hadn't, but what else is new.

[insert cartoon headshake and appropriate sound effect here]

2. Had a PI talk to me like an actual colleague yesterday, that was fun and unusual.

3. Have an event coming up later in the month that should be science-fun, so I'm looking forward to that.

4. Have some backtracking to do of various sorts, both bench-wise and hard-drive-overfull-wise.

Sometimes backtracking experiments is nice, because reproducing results is always a relief (in that okay-good-I-didn't-just-imagine-that kinda way).

Computer-wise, I just hate that my memory is my weakest link, and over the years I have constructed elaborate systems to cope, using various levels of note-taking and other documentation.

But having to re-read all of that takes a lot of time, and often makes me feel like the main character in Memento when he discovers his tattoos and then realizes he put them there.

Oh yeah, these are my notes to myself... Right. Where was I. And how far will I get before I get distracted and forget again.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Better vs. not really

Well, taking the weekend off helped in a lot of ways, and I got a lot done yesterday.

One thing I found out this weekend was not very encouraging. It's funny, though, in a black humor - aha I knew it! that explains a lot! - kinda way.


Although we hear lots about how "most" universities are either trying or are forced to use some kind of affirmative action in their faculty searches, not all of them are actually even trying.

This weekend I found out from a friend that one of the places I always wanted to go is among the worst when it comes to hiring.

Case in point: last year they interviewed 6 people.

1) 1 of the 6 people they interviewed was female.

2) The search committee consisted of: two guys.

3) They concluded after the interviews that the one woman they interviewed was
"too unfocused" and "sounded like a first-year grad student."

4) They also concluded that "the best candidates" are "waiting" and "not applying right now."

(I can't quite follow the logic of why the best candidates would be waiting to apply, but hey, since I think I'm one of the best candidates and didn't apply last year, I kind of have to laugh at that.)

However, when asked how they chose the candidates, and whether they even tried to take diversity into account, the answer was that they "just interviewed the top candidates."

5) The reason these two guys ran the search: the department chair is basically a figurehead. They're sort of the puppetmasters of their department. But how would an applicant know that before applying there, unless they had friends inside?

6) The two guys said there were no women faculty on the search "committee" because they were given "ample opportunity" and "chose not to participate".

Uh huh. I can think of about ten reasons why that might be, and none of them make me feel better about the outcome.

7) Last but not least, the department somehow 'dictated' that they wanted new faculty who work in particular areas, so topic was one of the major criteria by which candidates were chosen to interview.

However- and this is in some ways the best punchline- neither of the two guys choosing the candidates knows anything about the topics that were supposed to be top priority.

One has to wonder, then, how qualified these two guys could be to evaluate the quality and impact of the work from these candidates.

My guess is that lots of departments conduct searches this way, and even if there are more bodies on the search committee, it doesn't mean anyone in the whole group knows anything about the research topics of the candidates they're supposed to be evaluating.


So there you have it, folks. Another example of the scientific ways in which we hire scientists, while making conscientious strides towards increasing diversity.

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