Friday, August 29, 2008

Hellish week almost over.

Tired. Verrry tired. Lots of data to analyze, no space on my hard drive, PI is nagging me, and I couldn't sleep last night and didn't get enough sleep the night before, either.

Something about not having enough time to wind down after working late, or drinking a half-caf o'lait at 4:30 pm is too late in the day... or maybe just stress.

But for the second night in a row, I had a hard-core, grad-school-style anxiety attack last night and spent most of it on the couch watching some old Meryl Streep movie on We. Yeesh.

Better now, crossed that line to "too tired to care right now", where it is somewhat more peaceful.

Trying not to be too short-tempered, despite all that. It's taking a major act of zen serenity right now. Deep. Breathing.

So even though I will probably have to work late again tonight, which will probably necessitate a return to coffee (I skipped it this morning, trying to calm my rattled nerves), and I will most definitely have to work most of the long weekend, I am trying to look on the bright side:

-Got data.

-Making progress.

-Not homeless yet (have to drive past a particular homeless guy each morning, who always gives me a very knowing look like he knows that I know I should be glad I have a job and a place to live, at least for now).

-Not unemployed yet (unemployed friend of mine, meanwhile, is getting increasingly anxious about her lack of options, and I'm trying hard not to worry about her too much)

-PI is trying to help with project.

-Friends and strangers are helping with reagents, equipment etc. on short notice.

-I have learned, over the years in science, how to not let stress rule my life completely. That's really a Major Victory.

-Can make a point to go to yoga on Sunday and hopefully make an appearance at 1 or 2 friends' labor day get-togethers.

-It might rain this weekend, which is bad for get-togethers outdoors, but perfect when your plants need it and you know you have to work indoors anyway!

-Can sleep in tomorrow. Hale-fuckin-lujah.

Hooray for Friday.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where's my cape?

Got some more good data yesterday. As usual, I tried 3 experiments, and 1 worked.

That's about as good as it ever gets.

It's quite typical though, because the one that worked was just kind of dumb luck.

Got the right thing from the right person (but I didn't know that until afterwards), and everything was more or less working like it's supposed to (no stupid technical problems with equipment or running out of reagents, for once).

So in some ways, I'm proudest of one experiment that didn't work.


So I'm hoping that next time I will get some actual information out of it.

But I got to have that little lightbulb moment.

Aha! I said. I get it now! Minor victory!

The third one didn't work the way I wanted it to. Part of the problem is lack of decent controls, so it's hard to say whether my hypothesis is wrong or if I'm just not doing it quite right.

Probably both.

And that's okay. Because I don't take that stuff personally. And I got data, so nyaah nyaah, stupid non-working experiment. I'll find a way around you yet! Although it might just be arguing that you're stupid!

Stupid non-working, uninterpretable experiment. Grr. Nobody has the right controls for you anyway! I just refuse to interpret experiments without them!


So the cape in the title of this post actually refers to my inborn desire to fix everything for everybody, especially women who are being abused at work.

Yes, I found out yesterday that one of my colleagues is being harassed by her advisor, but she doesn't want to file a complaint because she's afraid he's going to torpedo her still-lingering publications and/or write her bad recommendation letters.

The creepiest part of the story is that he apparently told her something to the effect of how this is the way of the world, and she should get used to it now, he's really doing her a favor...

Like something out of the fucking 1950s, I swear. What year is it???

I'm not supposed to know he's doing this to her, it's one of those concerned grapevine things, so I can't tell anybody anyway (except you, anonymous black hole of internet!).

But I'm pissed. And I hate feeling powerless.

The thing is, I have to wonder how much of this really goes on and how many women have to go along with it or around it.

I know because it has happened to me. And this is part of why I get labeled "bitch", because I won't go along with it. And they know it. Nothing worse than women you can't intimidate with your dick!

In this case, the advisor is also one of my colleagues, and I have to look him in the eye and not punch him in the [insert sucker punch location here]. Or let on that I even know about this, I guess.

And we know that, even if she filed a complaint, loser advisor guy wouldn't be fired on the spot anyway.

But if she did file a complaint now, and someone else filed a complaint later, that would be the end of him. (Seeya suckah! Try that again at some other university where they won't care why you got kicked out of here as long as you have lots of publications!)

Since generations upon generations of female postdocs don't, however, file complaints, or are told that without witnesses, or something incriminating in writing, there's nothing actionable anyway.

So we know that this same hell will most likely be visited upon someone else.

God help her, whomever she is, and god forgive us for not doing anything to protect Future Female Postdoc. She deserves better.


And now I'm going back to work, containing my rage, and scheming quietly how to make an anonymous website for abusive bosses.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nice things people have said about my work.

Someone said in the comments on the last post that it helps to have a running list of compliments to keep your spirits up (I'm paraphrasing).

I think I've done this before, but probably bears rewriting. (When I write the book, I promise I'll take the best parts of repeated post topics...)

1. When I was thinking about quitting during grad school, my thesis advisor told me that early on, he was thinking of kicking me out. Apparently his former advisor, who had seen me speak about my work, told him not to.

"She's the real deal," he said.

I never found out if he actually said it, but it was nice of my advisor to say it to me. That's about as much of a compliment as he ever gave me.

2. "You're a lot more impressive in person, I mean, wow," someone said to me quite clumsily last year, when I went to give a talk to their lab at the start of a new collaboration.

3. "That paper is very solid, it will stand the test of time," someone said to me about my most hard-won, 2nd least-cited paper.

4. "You have a really interesting story," said a postdoc to me shortly before she left for industry.

And to mrphd, who often says my project is the only science he thinks is really interesting anymore, I wouldn't still be here without you.

That's all for now. I have to go be impressive and see if any of my experiments are working today. Wish me luck.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Drinking to excess is frowned upon on Mondays.

But I might do it anyway.

What I need right now is a good, hard black out. I've never blacked out, ever, and I think I'm long overdue.

Sort of like a hard reboot. So what if some of the hard drive gets wiped? There are a few things in my memory banks that I could do without.

As justification for alcohol on a weekday, let's see, which was more annoying today?

1. Stupid comments from people saying that I'm too whiny.


Fuck off, people. It's a blog. How sad is your life that you're writing a comment here saying I sound whiny? Don't you have anything better to do?

2. Stupid questions at work.

Not too many of those today, actually. Phew. What a relief. Only one or two.

3. Stupid emails from people sending me shitty-ass data and saying it looks great.

Check. Haven't responded to those yet. Must drink first and get my Constructive Feedback hat on (aka beer goggles for data).

4. Not having enough time to deal with very basic things in my personal life.


Still need to figure out latest health insurance changes nonsense; still have not dealt with car (see several blog posts over the last several months, car will probably blow up before I do anything about it).

5. News that my 'peers' who lack even basic pipetting skills are somehow careening past me on the roller rink of jobs.


Yeah, that one really deserves a drink. I soooo wish I could blog more details about that, because it's a great testament to black comedy, the things I've seen these people do in lab and still get high impact papers. In-fucking-credible.

And with that happy thought, I'm outta here for the day. Fuck off, y'all.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Response to comment.

Two posts ago, Dr. Feelg00d writes:

Actually, I mean smarter than you as it relates to the technical aspects of getting your experiment to work. Not the actual idea. I am plenty smart for that, and I am sure you are too. But I hate re-inventing the wheel for technical hurdles. Often when you find someone who doesnt help, you just need to find someone better. Its tough, but its worth the legwork. Of course, you have to know enough to know what you dont know (that make sense?).


Yes, that's what I mean when I say I can sometimes get useful information from other people for technical aspects.

But usually it's a bit of a stretch, e.g. something they use for a totally different application.

It often takes explaining from me, for them to understand why I want to try what they're doing, because they can't see how I'm going to apply it.

It's pretty tiring. But I try to be patient about it.

The truth is, they don't need to know, and I don't really care if they understand. But sometimes they have a little extra insight that they wouldn't share unless I share what I'm doing...

But yes, I think the trick is to figure out where your weak spots are, figure out whose strength that is, and then get them to help you.

I'm reasonably good at that, but one of my biggest problems lately is taking no for an answer when I shouldn't.

This is a bit of a tangent but I swear it's relevant.

I have run into some problems where our lab has published things that I need. (That was part of why I joined the lab, natch.)

But when I ask for these things, I'm told someone has to help me find them (in the freezer, or the basement, or wherever).

And when I find that person who supposedly knows, they say

yeah, it doesn't really exist anymore

or worse (and never on the record): yeah, that never really worked the way we said it did.

It's not clear to me whether PI really knows this and wants to remain in denial, or just thinks I'm making it up, or both...

PI doesn't want to know.

I've tried confrontation, I've tried hinting and reminding, but mostly I just get disapproving looks from PI and the world, when I'm not doing the obvious experiments that our lab has published before.

Am I supposed to reinvent that particular wheel? (What if it can't ever exist and I already know that?)

So when the answer is some kind of hand-waving, I don't want to know, because PI doesn't want to know.

My strategy of late has been to avoid, wherever possible, wasting my time on these kinds of things.

For better or worse, I've also adopted this strategy with other people (outside our lab). If they don't respond, or send me something that doesn't work and THEN don't respond, I don't want to know.

Because the obvious corollary is, they've done all their experiments this way, and don't see anything wrong with it.

Oh, god. I really didn't want to know that!

I never used to think this way, so I'm trying to get over it and go back to my Innocent Hopeful act: ask dumb questions when things don't work (e.g. pretend I'm screwing it up even when I'm pretty sure I'm not).

This is a double-edged sword for everyone, but especially for women. But it often works (at least in the short term).

But one of the most popular methods (maybe even the Official University Policy?) is to just avoid answering questions, or blame someone above you for making equipment or facilities inaccessible because of security concerns, or whatever.

Yeah, we can't give you a key, because then we'd have to give everyone a key, so even though it's sitting unused all weekend and you know how to use it, we can't let you use it so you'll have to wait until during the week, when it's booked solid for months, because someone has to be here when you're here and everyone has to wait and make an appointment...

Yeah, I love this. Science at its fastest and most efficient!

Let's cure cancer and HIV and Alzheimer's and MS! But not yet. Maybe next week.

Other times they don't tell you this up front, they just stall by not returning email or phone calls.


I don't remember having this problem when I was a grad student. Maybe I was just more intrepid and wouldn't take no for an answer? I was pretty good at getting keys back then.

I think what sets the Successful (note that I didn't say "the best") apart from The Rest is the ability to get anyone and everyone to help you and be happy about it.

Where I did my PhD, most people were reasonably helpful when that was their job (and often, even when it wasn't).

I think it's fair to say I wasn't any cuter or nicer than I am now. So I doubt that's the main difference in why I got so much help then and have so much trouble getting help now.

Admittedly, my project now is a lot harder, so maybe I need more than I did then? Maybe not, since I also know a lot more now-?

Where I've been doing my postdoc, most people are resentful when I ask them, no matter how nicely, to do their jobs.

I often find myself getting told nastily

you're the only one who wants that


EVERYONE ELSE is content with the [inferior product, service or equipment].

I am SO tired of this.

I'm as cheap as the next person, but I've tried the cheapest thing and found it didn't work, and I've worked my way up the quality ladder until I found something that works consistently. I'd rather not waste my time.

Oddly, very few people seem to know this.

There is nothing for which I'd say "Let's just get the most expensive thing just because it's expensive!"

But I'd also NEVER say "Let's get the cheapest thing even though we know it only works half the time!"


I am so tired of getting punished for having high standards.

One of my biggest fears lately is that I'm just working in a place that is not good enough in that regard.

I'd prefer to be the dumbest one in the room and just soak up information constantly.

Lately I feel like maybe I've gotten all I can out of my current situation, and at this point I'm just sucking air.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Bitch Is Back.

Yeah, I was on a bit of a rampage yesterday.

I'm trying to do the Innocent Helpful act while telling people what they're doing egregiously wrong and to get the fuck out of my way.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. Mostly it's all I can do to not scream uncontrollably at these people.

This week I'm disgusted by:

-PI's favorite new postdoc getting the one and only lab tech to help him on his project, when no one else gets any help whatsoever, and it's especially hard to understand why (besides politics) because FNP is one of the only people in the lab not applying for a job, trying to graduate, or about to get scooped (??)

-Being told that old, malfunctioning equipment that consistently ruins experiments "can't" be replaced because it's "too expensive", when I know the lab is spending hundreds of times more money other things

-Postdoc who is leaving to start his own lab gets first priority to finish his projects before he goes, while I have wait to finish my projects so I can even APPLY to start my own lab

-New postdocs trying to write fellowships, with zero training in grant writing from grad school, and PI isn't giving them honest or helpful feedback at all

-People from other labs who have been told I'll help them on shared equipment, WHO THE FUCK TOLD YOU THAT, THIS IS NOT MY JOB!!!

-Senior grad students who still don't know to do a positive control EVERY TIME!!!

-Postdocs who get paid twice what I get paid, who don't know how to use their own equipment, much less set up an experiment, but I have to ask THEM to help ME because I'm not ALLOWED to use the equipment alone???

-Technicians who condescend to me like I'm a grad student so that I have to go running to PI to give Official Permission for me to do, like, anything at all

And plenty of other things I am trying to block out of my memory or can't blog about.

And I have to go to lab today.

Oh, goody.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Science loves me.

Well, my PI might not love me. My coworkers might not love me.

They can ignore me and hate my guts. That's fine.

Because my experiments love me.

Today, the things that didn't work before, finally worked.

It only took a few tries...

In truth, it's not that exciting. It's not a huge result (not groundbreaking!). But it's a step in the right direction.

And now I get to Analyze.

My experiments don't really care.

But in some ways, that's the best thing I could ask for: not being judged.

One of the things I always loved about science is that, with few exceptions, I can do it even when I'm upset, no matter what the weather outside, no matter what I'm wearing.

I don't have to be nice to my experiments to get them to work.

If they're going to work, they're going to work. If they don't work, I can't take it personally. It wouldn't make any sense. I just have to try again.

But when they work, I'm tempted to continue seeing Science, even if it is an abusive spouse.

And when strangers are willing to send me things I need, just because they're published and I asked nicely, I think Science loves me!.

I think, wow, not all scientists suck.

I mean, I knew that. It's just that most of the ones I have to work with on a regular basis resent that I want them to give a shit about doing their jobs.

They never will.

And it does seem like, whenever I think seriously about leaving, Science starts trying to make it up to me.

Damn you, Science. You and Trouble* might have to fight it out.

*Trouble loves me (and Morrissey), too.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oh, the irony.

After I wrote that post yesterday I sucked it up, went through the motions of finishing a few minor things that absolutely had to get done*, and left a little earlier than usual.

And amazingly, I felt a lot better.

I went to the gym, I went home, I watched Shaun Johnson finally get a little of the gold she should have won earlier (if it weren't for the fucked up women's gymnastics judging).

This morning I felt okay, not too tired, and came to work knowing I have some Important Experiments To Do.

And then I got some news I really didn't want.

Obviously I can't blog the details here. But PhysioProf left another comment on my last post to the effect of, I wouldn't be in this situation if I had better mentor(s). And it's relevant so I'm going to write about that again here.

Basically, my "mentor" is a great mentor to some people in the lab.

But not others.

My impression is that there are not very many really great mentors out there, because it's all about having the right match. I think I've written this here before, but I'll write it again: nobody is a great mentor to everyone.

And here's another Newsflash: just because someone has had a few people come out of their lab and get jobs, does NOT mean they are a good mentor.

In larger labs, the PI is much too busy to mentor everyone. So the favorites get the mentoring, and the rest get to wait.

Or hang.

If we complain, we're told to be patient.

If the PI should realize later that they dropped the ball, at most we get a mumbled apology.

Yeah, how many years of my life can I get back with a mumbled apology?

I'll tell you: NONE.

How many career chances does a person get in science? Not many. If a cat has 9 lives, I think I'm on my last one.

And then comes the blame. It's all too easy for the busy PI to say, after they've dropped the ball, that we should have complained more (Um, you lectured me on how I have to be patient???).

It really is like battered wife syndrome. In more ways than one.

One of the things that really made me cry yesterday was that in my effort to figure out why the thought of quitting makes me cry, I read an interview with Liz Blackburn where she was saying "because science is worth it".

In that same article, she was saying how she was (like most women of her generation, Nancy Hopkins is a great example of someone who always says this) basically oblivious to sexism when she was younger, and how she thinks that's one of the big reasons she got through.

She said her mentees are very discouraged by it.

No kidding.

She also said the postdoc associations have been very helpful for her mentees, which made me laugh.

While they have been somewhat of a crutch for me at times when I thought that was all I needed, none of that can really solve my fundamental problems.

If anything, I see postdoc associations as a symptom of just how broken the system has become, that the postdocs have to organize ourselves because nobody else really gives a damn what happens to most of us.

And here we are, still trying to be naive and optimistic that we can fix anything by, what, taking care of our training ourselves because our PIs won't do it?

Probably we should be marching in the streets, but that's never going to happen, and even if it did, it's hard to believe anybody would care.

50,000 whiny PhDs? Oh please.

So today I have some Important Things To Do at the bench, but I'm really not in the mood to do anything, because of this overwhelming sense that nothing I do really matters, no matter how good it is, no matter how right I am, I will always be screwed over.

And none of it really matters, as far as I'm concerned I've done the experiments that really tested my hypothesis, and they worked, and I'm right.

So who cares if anybody else ever knows about it?

Who cares, indeed.

Lately one of my big hangups is that if I leave, my PI will probably take my project and claim it as an original idea.

A few people might know that it was mine, but they'll forget.

If I leave, nobody in my field or my family will try to stop me. Nobody will say,

But you have to publish that groundbreaking work!

My friends have been saying it for a while, but I think at this point they realize that, as one friend put it, staying in science is killing me.

She was being hyperbolic of course, I'm eating and sleeping and not any more depressed than I've always been.

I'm just having a hard time remembering what I'm doing this for. At one point, I actually cared about having something to prove, and proving it, because I thought I could convince people.

I think I'm over that fantasy now. You can lead a dead horse to water and beat it as hard as you want, but it still won't drink.

*although I'm pretty sure neither of my experiments worked

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why does the thought of quitting make me cry?

Today, I want to quit. I really really want to quit.

But for some reason, that makes me sad. I don't know why. I guess I feel defeated, or something, and I hate to think I'm quitting because I give up?

But I do give up. I am SO gave up. I don't have anything left to give. And I get nothing for it. So why should I keep doing it?

Do I want to quit for the wrong reasons?

Am I hating science because I'm not good enough at it? Or am I not doing as well as I could because I never liked science as much as the successful people do?

I'm definitely angry. It doesn't help that I've confirmed, in the last year, that contradictory data were deliberately left out of at least two papers whose conclusions I know to be false. And those papers are preventing me from publishing what I've been working on.

Yeah, that's fair. I'm angry that there's no justice in the world, but especially in science.

I pulled out some of my career change books that I re-read every few years (at the end of grad school, for example).

I guess this is the part where I go through and tick off transferable skills and think about what I want to do.

I've decided that what I hate most about science is the general lack of integrity. I'm watching grad students who will do anything to get their work published, even if they know their own data are crap. I'm watching PIs who will go to any lengths to hypocritically rationalize their unethical behavior.

Everyone just says it's "playing the game."

Ironically, so far this morning I got an email saying that something I ordered is coming in today or tomorrow; a collaborator sent me some reagents I needed; and a friend emailed me about a job opening in her department.

Once upon a time, those three things would have been enough to keep me going.

Meanwhile, my bench mates are crowded around a computer watching You Tube.

My PI is back to thinking my project is crap.

And I'm wondering how the hell I'm going to get through the day. I can't decide if it would be better to cry, or try not to.

Oh fuck it. Maybe I'll cry first, and then get on with pretending like I don't mind being here. No sense in quitting until I have health insurance lined up.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Someone has a case of the Mondays.

Nothing I have planned for today will be fun, although there is a slight possibility of confirming a slightly interesting preliminary result through the least exciting but most important part of my job: repetition.

Yeah. And daydreaming a little about things I could maybe have a student do for me, depending of course on the level of this student's independence and ability to follow instructions.

And trying not to think about all the other things I will be doing later in the week, when everything I'm waiting for arrives or is otherwise ready.

Monday: dread of the other 4 official days of irritation.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Blah and boredom.

I'm in one of those moods. Been reverting to my childhood state of reading a lot, writing less, and thinking about writing other things (not science-related at all).

So I don't really feel like blogging.

Had an almost completely brainless day yesterday, which was good in some ways.

Last night we ended up, by accident, at one of these Benefit Our Wounded Soldiers kind of benefit thingees where we watched our local team trounce these poor guys, most of them back from the Middle East for only 1-2 weeks.

Hey, at least they were back.

Anyway it was strange, because I usually don't watch sports at all. The Michael Phelps Show was enough for me this week. Poor guy, he seems to know the rest of his life will be mostly downhill from here.

And I was thinking again about how I hate that sports players are heroes in our country, but doctors and scientists aren't.

In other news, I'm thinking about taking a new student. So far she keeps calling me Dr., which I find kind of amusing, and that worries me.

I'm debating whether I really have the time and appropriate activities for someone new, or if I'm just so desperate for help of any kind that I'm tempted to take a student when I really shouldn't. I need to make up my mind this week so she'll have time to find another person to train her.

And I talked to a friend this week who wants to quit her job, too.

She just dumped the guy she was dating, and hates her boss more than most people (her boss is truly among the worst of the worst).

It wasn't particularly uplifting to talk to her, but it got me wondering about something they've been saying about the gymnastics portions of the Michael Phelps show: that nobody wants to do gymnastics anymore in the US because it's too hard.

Everybody quits, they said.

This could be said of a lot of the old activities of yore, like playing a musical instrument, and has always been said about science and math. And yet somehow there are still enough musicians, aren't there?

Would it be so bad if we all shifted away from our previous forms of entertainment and focused our efforts on other kinds of things, like playing video games? Is it really so different, is it really worse, to play video games than to play a musical instrument?

Is it worse to be good at video games than to be a scientist? Not in some countries, where they laud their gamers the way we laud our athletes.

I find it bizarre that some of these activities are viewed in our society as being brainy or requiring a certain amount of skill, and others aren't.

Speaking of, I really need a new video game. Suggestions are welcome.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Decisions, decisions.

Well, the week is almost 'over' and I have to decide if I want to try to work this weekend.

This is something I used to really agonize about all the time, but lately it has been pretty obvious most weeks. It was either Do or Die, or Just Don't.

Things being what they are, I worked all of last weekend and nothing this week has been particularly productive, although I've actually been in a better mood than I would have expected (not saying much, I know).

I was expecting not to be able to do anything this weekend, whether I wanted to or not, for lack of things being ready/ordered/arrived at the right time (e.g. by this afternoon).

But I thought of a couple of things I could/should do, and now I'm kind of torn.

Note that I fully expect to have to work next weekend, too.


1. Might get something done 2 days sooner than would have otherwise.

2. Might enjoy the A/C (can't afford it at home)

3. Might feel relief at both 1 and 2.

4. Will get me out of the house and off the couch, i.e. more likely to go to the gym and possibly run some other errands I would otherwise put off.

5. Might be less busy next week (or more likely, just have more time for other crises).

6. Because of timing issues, this weekend might be better for some of the experiments than middle of next week.

7. Have no other plans for the weekend anyway.


1. Might not get desired results despite weekend effort.

2. Might feel more burned out.*

3. Will miss out on precious lounging-around and personal chore time, leading to underwear deficit next week and mrphd being pissed at getting stuck with more than his usual share of housework.

Hmm. Looks like the pros have it. Well, thanks for joining us in our latest round of Postdoc Guilt Gone Wild. Join us next time for "When is the best time to quit science?" at our regularly scheduled ranting.

*Not that it's emotionally possible to feel more burned out than I already am, but physically, things could be worse.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Con: My experiments aren't working at all.

Pro: I get to go home because it didn't take me too long to figure that out.

Not exactly self-explanatory.

One of the things I hate most about interdisciplinary research is that it typically involves working with lots of people who do different things different ways, in different locations. And lots of them are not exactly great at communication, spoken or written.

One of my biggest pet peeves, I've decided, is when things are not labeled clearly or written down anywhere. This makes finding things and following protocols in someone else's lab anything but self-explanatory.

What really drives me nuts is that most of the time, I'm one of the few - or the only - people who are working in more than one place, with more than a few techniques, and it's that much more important for me to be able to find what I need quickly.

Even worse, I often need things during off-hours (e.g. after 4 pm when the staff go home, not to mention nights, weekends and 'holidays').

If things were labeled and organized, I'd be able to do all of this without wasting MY time having to hunt down the one person who supposedly knows where everything is or how to do that little trick (and they're always on vacation, it seems).

Only to find them and find out that they've run out of the thing I needed, even though there is supposed to be a lab stock.

You know. The thing everyone supposedly uses all the time? Can't do any work without it? Yeah, we ran out of that.

And god forbid we should post their current cell phone number somewhere easy to find, to get the answer, because the lab policy is that "so and so should know but they're gone now."


It seems very un-scientific to me. Why aren't people better about communicating with their future labmates?

At least if you write it down, the scientific method, such as it is, has a chance of working.

I was thinking about this because I was reading how the old alchemists used to take their secrets to the grave. It seems like a waste. And inefficient at best.

And now I'm off to invent a new round thing. I think I'm going to call it a "wheel."

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

1 good thing this week?

Maybe a few good things so far:

1. My gel was not a total disaster

2. The broken equipment got fixed in a timely manner*

3. A friend is going to help me shop my CV around in a non-academic track that would pay very well, and possibly put some more pressure on my PI to put up or shut up

4. Flight prices are coming down somewhat, so I might get to take that long weekend to visit friends in a place I couldn't afford before

5. Got to see a friend I only see a couple of times a year

6. Two other friends are coming back from their travels, so it will be nice to see them and catch up on all their summer adventures

7. Although I wake up feeling awful most days, by the time I get to lab I feel okay. Then it's just a matter of protecting my mood for as much of the day as possible. Yesterday my mood degraded gradually throughout the day.

8. Stayed up too late watching men's gymnastics, but it was fun.

*although I haven't tried to use it myself yet, maybe I should remain skeptical until it proves fixed...

Monday, August 11, 2008

PI Power.

This week's experiment: more interactions with PI than usual.

Very curious to see how this goes.

Lately PI wants to be Involved. I am both amused and bemused by this.

In some ways, it is a big relief, someone to lean on. Someone who cares about my project (all of a sudden). At least insofar as it will make PI look good.

In other ways, I suspect it will be too little, too late.

But most of me just thinks hey, better than nothing. Better late than never.

As a point raised by JR in a comment, re: opportunity, I think this is a good example.

I often find myself wondering if the problem is that I don't handle these interactions correctly, if I don't anticipate PI's every desire and finagle every nuance in my favor, will I have missed some invaluable chance here?

I've never been good at kissing ass. And I think PI is suspicious even of sincere compliments from me, because they are so very rare indeed.

So I can't help thinking about former Postdoc(s) and how some of them, who were no better than I am at the bench, no more hard working, and no more well-read, no better writers, etc... how they somehow achieved a meteoric rise up and out of the lab.

I can only assume this - interactions with the PI - was the missing ingredient?

So I keep trying to channel these Ghosts of Postdocs Past and think about what they did differently. Why them and not me, I have to wonder?

I have to assume it's because they knew how to harness PI Power to their advantage.

I'm trying to figure out how to build PI panels and attach them to my roof.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Things that would make my life easier.

Dear Internet,

I know you are everywhere and very powerful, able to recover lost things and influence the outcomes like a giant magic 8-ball in the sky.

Today I call upon you to send me a few things I need. In no particular order:

1. A tailor that is open on Sundays, who already knows how long my pants should be so I don't have to try them on one at a time.

2. The right kind of centrifuge. Yeah, you know it's ridiculous that we don't have our own and I have to go use someone else's.

3. Someone I trust to take my car to get a checkup & tuneup and then bring it back to me, all while I'm at work so I don't have to worry about getting a ride.

4. A cleaning service.

5. More Joss Whedon.

6. A grant would be nice. I haven't applied for any lately, I want the kind that shows up in the mail with a very authentic-looking letter from someone very rich who just thinks my project is cool and wants a tax write-off.

7. More sleep.

8. A personal hairdresser.

9. A new wardrobe, please. The kind that just appears in my closet where my old clothes used to be.

10. An energetic, OCD technician to do the tedious parts so I can just do the fun stuff.

11. A long, all expenses paid (no tipping allowed) vacation somewhere with no people except the ones waiting on me hand and foot (who are paid very well because they deserve it).

That would be great, thanks.




Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sheltering our young.

LC wrote this comment in response to 2 posts ago:

I understand that in life, politics seeps into nearly everything else, but in your opinion, are there places/labs in which politics is not so prevalent? Is it something particular to NIH, or just as acute at any other academic institution? I never noticed even the slightest hint of it it at the lab I work at, but maybe that's just because I'm not one of those people worrying about grants and stuff like that. Maybe I'm naive. I'd like to hear your perspective.

Politics does not "seep". Politics IS. It is everywhere. Until you know how to look for it, it's behind the scenes.

In science we have a long, honored tradition of hiding it, particularly from our youngest recruits.

In your opinion, are there places/labs in which politics is not so prevalent?

NO. It's always there. You can't run away from it. I've tried.

Here's the thing. You can find a pollyanna lab, and you might even be able to find a pollyanna department. But Pollyannas don't last. Even if you're lucky enough to be in a good place for a short period of nirvana, it won't stay that way forever.

The bigger the place, the more politics. And by big I don't mean size. I mean money and fame.

I don't think you'll ever find a pollyanna university. Or research institute.

I once worked for a Pollyanna PI. I think I've written about this before, but the take-home message is that those kinds of people lose their ideas, get scooped, lose their funding, and don't get tenure. You can't go around being nice to everybody and assuming they'll all be as nice as you. You're going to get stepped on. And worse than that, the people in your lab are going to get screwed.

I never noticed even the slightest hint of it it at the lab I work at, but maybe that's just because I'm not one of those people worrying about grants and stuff like that. Maybe I'm naive.

I really liked your comment because once upon a time, I was exactly like you. I was completely oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes in the labs where I worked.

We really are very good at sheltering our young. You're not supposed to worry about "grants and stuff like that", goes this thinking, but I think this is stupid.

You should have to write for funding at every stage of your research career, it would be better training and it would prepare you psychologically for what you're getting into.

I now know for a fact that the labs I worked in as a young chickadee deliberately waited until I wasn't there to fight amongst themselves and bitch about the boss.

I'm sure your lab is doing the same for you. The funny thing is, they think they're doing you a favor.

Some people think of the training years as a kind of childhood (this is one of my least favorite things about science, the extended period of arrested development, as it were, and the family metaphor is all too true). They think that at the early stages we should just show you how much fun it is to do experiments.

That's how they suck you in, right?

We've all discussed on various science blogs the pros and cons of giving students, for example, real projects (FSP's posts on this topic come to mind).

Real projects are ones that might have some representative degree of failure associated with them. Because grad school is not like a summer project. There are no guarantees of success. The only guarantee is that you will experience a lot of failure. You will make mistakes. You will get mad. You will have to learn how to forgive yourself for not being perfect, and forgive science for being unpredictable. And forgive your advisor(s) for giving you bad advice. They meant well, they just didn't know any better, right?

But what I find unforgivable is that we lie to you.

There were no science blogs when I was in school (actually the internet was very new and everyone was talking about this crazy thing called the World Wide Web).

What's amazing to me is how long the lies persist. Most people never understand until after they finish grad school. Corruption is not an exception. It is not rare. It is the norm. You just don't know it yet. A little bit can go a long way. And nowhere is immune. All it takes is one bad seed to spoil the bunch.

With perfect timing, I was talking to a friend the other night who worked as a technician for several years (and left science). In a rare example of the best reason to quit, he left science because he just wasn't that excited about it and didn't think it was the best way for him to change the world.

But even more amazingly, he still thought success in science was governed by two things: Luck and Hard Work.

Which I think is completely guileless, but probably pretty typical if you haven't been to grad school +/- postdoc and found out the hard way.

It just doesn't make sense, unless you want to include "politics" under "luck", which could work if you are not a minority (e.g. if you have the good fortune to look and sound exactly like the majority of white male PIs, and you remind them of themselves when they were younger so they want to take you under their powerful wings).

But seriously. Science is not immune to politics. If you're like I was in high school, you probably think it might have been once upon a time, but all you have to do is read some science history to find out that's not true, either (e.g. see the new books about Darwin and That Other Guy who also observed evidence for evolution).

Science has always been political. Always. And the cynical among us will say it always will be. Kind of like how some women think that women will never have equal rights or success in the workplace to what men have now. I hope neither is true. But lately I am not sure that staying in academia is the best way for me to change the world.

So here's what you need to know:

Science is hard. You have to be okay with constant failure.

Politics IS. It just IS. You can't get away from it. If you think science is going to be a haven of objective honesty, honor, and integrity, think again.

Being good at doing experiments, teaching, and thinking is not enough.

You have to be good at politics to make it through.

And if you're a minority, good luck. The system is working against you.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Letter I won't send... yet.

To all those who may have known me in science:

This letter is to let you know that I quit.

I quit being a postdoc.

I will not apply for faculty positions, and I will not apply for industry positions. I will not apply to teach science anywhere, ever.

Science can kiss my ass.

I want to thank you for all the help and support you've tried to give me over the years. Some of it helped.

None of it helped enough, obviously.

I want you to know I am the poster girl for what is wrong with this so-called 'system' that governs research in this country.

I am Jack's leaky pipeline.

But I digress. I am writing to let you know that I am writing a book about all of the unbelievably awful shit that has happened to me in science.

I'm sure you will be in it, mentioned by name.

Did you think I forgot what you said that day?

Now everyone will know.

I hope you're proud of yourselves.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Week getting better.

A couple of you asked if my week is getting better. I guess I'd say yes, but only because I'm trying to have a better attitude.

And yes, those new vitamins (big dose of B!) are really helping a lot. Not being tired all the time is quite an amazing change for me of late.

It's hard to explain my frustrations, partly because of anonymity issues I can't tell as complete of a story here as I would like.

I think this week has been just another bump in the road of interdisciplinary research. I think this has long been the problem with my project, with the labs I've been working in, with my publications, and with my job prospects.

I have been teaching myself, mostly from reading and attending meetings, a 'new' field without having been working in a lab that specializes in it. This means my PI never completely understands everything I'm doing, doesn't have all the reagents I need, and questions any time I need to order something.

[aside: Yes, we have had at least a few examples of the "That won't work, and it's too expensive" followed later by "Why didn't you ever do that experiment?"

You've been there, you know what I mean. UGH. Sigh.]

It means we don't have the Established Track Record one needs to get high-impact papers.

It means departments that might consider me for a job, can't quite figure out where to put me.

And it means that half the people understand half my work all the time, but nobody understands all of it all of the time.

This could mean they are all doubly impressed, right?

But the flip side of it is, they all assume (we all do, right?) that they're smarter than I am. So they say, "Well why doesn't she just do X (seemingly straightforward experiment)?"

And the answer is, because that won't work in my case, for reasons you wouldn't know about because you only understand half of my project.

But these are all rational, well-meaning people, who haven't once considered that yes, I thought of that, in some cases I even tried it, and maybe I just don't bring you every little piece of trash I pick up.*

I do sometimes wonder if I would have these same kinds of problems if I were a better Salesperson, or better yet, a Salesman.

I'm still trying to learn how to communicate all of these nuances clearly and succinctly without making it sound like, as someone pointed out at a meeting recently:

Yeah, your project just sounds REALLY HARD.

(This is not a compliment, by the way, it means you'll never get funded.

Which means you'll never get a faculty position with THAT project)

But when I try to make it look easy, as I'm told we must, I get this other kind of "Well why don't you JUST try X, Y and Z (you idiot)"??**

So I am trying to remain calm, and just be the bigger person that I know I can be. I can remember, understand, and cater to, everyone else's perspective, even if they don't understand mine. I can learn how, with repeated bangings of head-against-wall, to explain what I'm doing so that everyone will understand that

Yes, it's hard, but it's also really important and interesting AND IT'S WORKING. And if you were so smart, you would have HIRED ME BY NOW.

*weak attempt at a Fight Club reference

**My PI told me not to?

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Fortune Cookie: NIH is more broken than ever.

Well, my spiritual random draw (tarot card, in this case) tells me I need to have more Faith and Hope in myself.

Been trying that as a mini-mantra this weekend, "Faith and Hope, Faith and Hope, Faith and Hope."

Might have, at the very least, helped my cloning. I'll let you know when I get the sequencing back.

This morning I'm having a bit of an anxiety attack. I think it's the new vitamins I'm trying, they have a lot more B complex than I usually use. It has definitely helped my energy level, but the flip side is disrupting my sleep and making me feel more stressed out, rather than less.


In other news, more postdoctoral fellowship atrocities!

We already knew that postdoctoral salaries have been frozen, despite a previous agreement to raise them gradually over several years up to a reasonable wage for a PhD-holding adult.

Now, the latest word on the street is, if you get a borderline (or maybe not even close to borderline) score on an NIH NRSA, call them or have your PI call them. I'm not sure this was always the case, but it's definitely required now.

This is especially important for younger PIs, who might not have as much of an established track record and might not even know you have to do this.

DO THIS. Keeping in mind, of course, that more established PIs have a major advantage.

More NIH loopholes that set back young faculty members from the outset...

At one institute (which shall go unnamed for anonymity of my friend), they wouldn't even report what NRSA scores were fundable, just who got the grants and who didn't.

Yeah, that's scientific all right.

AND - because wait, it gets better - they've changed the rules on how many years of postdoc funding you can have.

In the past, it was 3 years, regardless of when you got it. So if it took you a year or two to get a fundable score (or a phone call from the right person!) you still got 3 years.

Now, they say you can only have it within the first 3 years of postdoctoral experience. So if you stay in your thesis lab for a year, and get your NIH NRSA the year after, guess what? Only 1 year of postdoctoral funding!

And you know what they say when you tell them this is unrealistic?

You only need 3 years of postdoctoral training.

Um, sure, we agree with that, actually. SO WHERE ARE ALL THOSE PHD JOBS?

I've actually seen faculty positions advertised for Assistant Professors requiring a minimum of 6 years of postdoctoral training. I mean seriously.

Another friend raised a funny point. He said, Can you imagine if they did that for R01s? "Like, sorry, it took you two years to get a fundable score, so now you only get 3 years of money!"

Yeah, that would never fly. Why do postdocs put up with shit like this?

Oh, right, we have zero power. Hey NPA, where are you when we need you to bargain for something?

Maybe we need a union after all.

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