Saturday, January 03, 2009

Practical magic: science vs. street smarts in academia.

I can't sleep. So you, dear readers, get a very long 3 AM blog post from MsPhD!

This week, I have been musing on a new hypothesis I'm developing. It's probably not a new feminist theory in any sense, but to me it was a revelation. And since my therapist is still on vacation, you get to hear about it here first!

According to the Just-World fallacy, if you work hard you will be rewarded, and if you are being punished you must have done something to deserve it. Right?

Many of us who do well in academics hold tight to this thinking, because we always did well in school. We want to believe our good grades, etc. have been, and will always be, rewarded by success. So we look for the equivalent in research: good results, good writing, good talks. Doing the right experiments.

Conversely, if you're not getting the papers or the job or the grants, it must mean you suck. Right?

However, some of you know this is not how academic science actually works.

And here's where things get interesting. The people who do best, on average, have not just science smarts, but also street smarts, and in just the right ratios (I'd guess maybe 3:2 or 1:1 or even 1:3).

Intuitively, we all know this is true. We all went to school with That Guy (it's almost always a guy) who aced every exam. But That Guy sucked at the bench, and/or could never figure out the right experiments to do, despite spending every waking minute reading about science, talking about science, and expounding on what everyone else was doing wrong.

Yeah. That Guy.

That Guy was missing some of the street smarts. Maybe he had zero, or maybe he just didn't meet the threshold. Maybe he's a perma-doc to this day, because he never really caught on.

In earlier generations, he might have had a faculty position because there were more of them in those days, but not now. Now, you gotta have art.

And the converse of That Guy is true. Let's call him That Prof. That Prof had a meteoric rise, short postdoc, so everyone assumes he's a genius.

The truth is, he's probably not. He probably just had the formula (some smarts + street smarts) = success!

Supposedly, your level of street smarts has more to do with your upbringing than almost any other single factor. People who know how to come in and play the system usually learned those skills early on, from their parents. Or maybe if they did certain activities after school.

This is a critical skill, but you don't learn these things in class.

However, here's where things get really interesting for women in particular.

From what I can tell, street knowledge is really hard for women to get. Again, maybe not a novel idea, but bear with me, I'm trying to figure out how to fix it.

1. Men tend to share street knowledge mostly (notice I didn't say only!) with other men.

The women I know who have done very well, did so because they either had a lot of street smarts to begin with, so they hooked up with older (usually male) mentors, and got the information and help they needed that way.

Some of the less street-smart ended up, usually through sheer luck, with husbands who fed them the information they needed (and/or helped them get their jobs via couple hiring).

Those are the two categories, people. Think about that cold, hard fact for a moment.

And ask yourself, if you got a job on your own, was really all on your own? Didn't somebody help you?

2. Women are often blind to the existence of street knowledge. If we know it's there, we can't figure out how to get it.

This is the Handbook of Unwritten Rules phenomenon.

Some of us know things are progressing in an irrational way.

Or, we assume there's a rationalization based on logic we just can't follow (Just-World Fallacy, anyone?).

But we're stuck at that stage. We can't figure out how to get the decoder ring. Some people, failing to get it, conclude that it's all paranoia and must not exist.

They're wrong.

3. Many of the men (and women!) we work with don't think of it this way, so their treatment of us is based on the Just-World Fallacy.

By the time we're at the critical junctures, we women might have made some substantial efforts to get street knowledge, with varying degrees of success.

However, we're already behind where we should have been in our careers, due to the cumulative lack of having had street knowledge handed to us, as it often is for men.

This is assumed, via the Just-World Fallacy, to be due to insufficient desire, ability, or hard work (Thank you, Larry Summers).

We are falling behind, therefore we must have been lazy, stupid, or just plain bitchy. Right?

We get treated this way for long enough, and we start to believe it ourselves.

Maybe I just suck, we find ourselves thinking.

Then the road splits and you have basically two choices.

a. Notice you are becoming bitter and/or insecure, publicly or otherwise. Start a blog, go to a therapist. Try to figure out why.

b. Major career change, assuming it will be better elsewhere. Either it will be more suited to your particular abilities, and/or it will help stop thinking you suck.

Sometimes it is better elsewhere, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes we see what we want to see (projecting that it is better in industry or with a female PI, for example, can help postpone the steep descent into bitterness).

This all started solidifying for me, as this week I found myself explaining to a Condescending Collaborator (we'll call him CondeColl for short), ye olde tired refrain: No, I'm not an idiot.

The default in science is to assume everyone else in an idiot until proven smart. Right? Some of us try to keep an open mind, but to be human is to blink.

In this case, I had to defend myself to CondeColl, whom I had coincidentally just provided with a new protocol (which he agreed will save him a tremendous amount of time and effort).

Therefore, I had just proven I'm not an idiot. Right?


I gotta tell you, I am getting tired of this schtick. How much energy do I have to spend correcting people's wrong assumptions about me? Because of how I look? Because of stereotyping? How much does that set me back, emotionally and otherwise?

And yet, to do nothing is not productive, either. For me or for anyone who comes after me in this business.

CondeColl is a young man who was slightly skeptical when I tried to get him to walk a meter in my shoes. I was trying to explain to him how, from my point of view, it was hard for me to figure out when I was being shut out of an all-male gang in my lab, but I ultimately realized what had happened had nothing to do with science.

(Lest you think I went asking for trouble, this was in answer to his question about whatever happened to X system that one of the gang members touted as the next sliced bread).

Long story short, I'm not sure if CondeColl gets it, but hey at least I tried. This walk-a-meter approach has worked with other clueless guys in the past. Sometimes it takes a little while to sink in.

And this applies as well, of course, to ALL of us in science.

To wit, everyone assumes that all the setbacks a postdoc (male or female) experiences in publishing, etc. must be due to their scientific shortcomings, right?

Or because they're just arrogant, so no one can stand them, much less wants to help them (like That Guy)?

I was asking another co-worker recently what happened to a senior postdoc who left after 8-9 years. The answer was precisely the Just-World explanation: "He had personality deficiencies".

So let's be honest here. Shit happens to everyone. Some more than others.

The ones who have street smarts know how to get themselves out of tight spots, and the ones who don't.... get swept off the street.

When we make a judgment about someone not making it in science and therefore not being good enough, it could be that all they really lack is street smarts.

My concern is that I'm watching these senior women who managed to make it, and they are still lacking for street smarts. If they don't have it themselves, how are they going to pass that on to their female mentees?

Meanwhile, even well-meaning male PIs seem to assume women get our street knowledge from other women.

They might reflexively share with their male mentees, because that's how it was for them and that's how it has always been.

But most don't understand that it can and should be taught to women too.

Even if women are starting out with basically no clue whatsoever. Our cluelessness, in other words, is lack of knowledge. NOT lack of ability.

The truth is, of the female PIs I've met so far, I'm not convinced any of them will, or even know how, to help me.

They might want to, but they don't know where to start. Or I don't know the right words to get them to tell me. There again, my lack of street smarts is holding me back.

I've also tried to ask senior men for help, but they give me the Just-World Fallacy thrown back in my face. They say:

If you're good enough, you'll get a job. But are you sure you want to be a professor, little lady? Aren't you awfully young to be applying for jobs?

At least the women (generally) don't give me that particular brand of crap.

So walk a meter in my shoes. What kind of emotional toll does it take to deal with that, and know that each time you go asking for help or advice, you're always risking having to deal with that? Don't you eventually stop wanting to ask?

Meanwhile, five minutes later, both male and female PIs turn around and say to Other Guy (who, as near as I can tell, is not asking for help and no more deserving than I am): Here's how you do it. And then they hand him the Big Book of Street Knowledge for Dummies.

I've seen this happen. They tell me to fend for myself, and then they turn around and grab Other Guy by the hand and drag him down the street. It's incredibly frustrating.

A friend of mine, in her more bitter moments, puts it thusly: In the current economy, everyone is concerned about the men getting jobs to support their families. When 85% of the men already have jobs, we'll get jobs. But not before then.

Who knows if that's actually true (probably in another decade feminist economic theory will have the data to prove it true or false).

Meanwhile, most people seem to both expect and award street knowledge to guys, but not to women.

And it's self-reinforcing. The more you have, the more you get. But if you start out with none, it's really hard to get anywhere at all.

Maybe this is true in science and otherwise. I can really only speak to academic science. But I think this is a big part of what is holding us back.

Blogging has been a huge help. I've gotten all kinds of feedback, some more constructive than others, but all of it educational. If you can lurk around here, you can learn some things.

I have tried some other approaches to getting street-smart. I've read books on negotiating, etc. and some of those tools have been helpful although I suspect that when I really need to use those tools, I come across as someone who read about it in a book (!).

But my revelation of the week was that I need to be kinder to myself about this, because let's be honest: I'm basically still starting from scratch.

I have a decent amount of street smarts, maybe, but I haven't been given the Handbook of Street Knowledge in science, and not everyone understands that.

So it's no big surprise that some people will default to assuming I'm an idiot until proven smart. And some people who read this blog and know nothing about my science might assume I'm an idiot scientifically, too. I promise, my science is even better than my blogging!

I just hope that some of you can consider the possibility that, although bad things happen to everyone, it's not all deserved.We don't live in a Just World, no matter how scientific and objective we try to be.

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At 8:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with about 90% of what you say here. The only thing I disagree completely with is your assumption that men are specifically trained by other men to have "street smarts". I can assure you, that is NOT the case, at least in my experience. You either have it(street smarts), or you don't. And if you don't have it, you end up learning it through bitter experience, as opposed to having some kind father figure mentor bestow it upon you. You really have little understanding of men if you think we spend a lot of time caring about how other men are doing careerwise. As men, first and foremost, most of us are extremely competitive, and in science are too busy fighting for our own lives to have much care for how others are doing. This is just how it is, and can probably be found to be the same in just about every career, whether it be medicine, law, construction, sports. The only exception I can think of off the top of my head would be in teaching.

If anything, women are much more nurturing than men. So for you to think men have some great mentoring advantage from other men, I think is way off the mark.

Otherwise, great post! Spot on for the most part.

At 8:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I broadly agree that the Just-World argument falls short on so many levels, I think you have missed a possibility for women in the academy. I would loosely term it "being known." For many years, I have been in environments where I did not know anyone. Yet by the time I left those places, I was known (for better or for worse, but most of the time for better). I asked questions, I initiated conversations, I would offer what I thought about situations if the other person asked for my thoughts, I looked for opportunities to eat with people, etc. Such behaviors have helped me build a rather large, a rather broad, and a rather enduring professional network.

I think one of the reasons why some people may find blogging helpful could be that it provides a chance to start becoming known.

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Yeah, I think you're basically on target, although the amount/availability/quality of mentoring to female trainees probably varies from department to department. Some departments have a few successful female faculty, which helps promote general equality of treatment; and some departments are good about selecting faculty (both M and F) who will try to mentor trainees effectively (again, both M and F).

I came in with some baseline street smarts because of growing up in an academic family. Was aided further by marrying another academic (as you point out) who is constantly helpful on both the street smarts and the science ends. Aided still further by having a terrific pro-women PI, who was generous with advice. Sometimes batty advice, perhaps, but generous nonetheless.

I'm not sure how anyone makes it without the huge amount of help I've gotten from these sources. Conversely, people who seem to think they don't need advice (or never take it) almost always do poorly, at least that I've seen. Both men and women, though I agree women are more likely to self-blame.

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

although bad things happen to everyone, it's not all deserved.

Agreed. And a lot of people get ahead over people who are more qualified and deserving.

I also agree with your notion of street smarts but not so much that there is a gender bias towards males. It does take time to realize that getting ahead in science (academic science anyway) requires more than just brains and there's been a couple of good posts in the last few days by Isis and PhysioProf on the importance of communication. That being said though, I think that a lot of the street smarts you refer to involves realizing what you need to do to put yourself out there and that doing it well is just as important as doing good science, if not more so.

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there's a handbook? SHIT. I was just learning the fucking secret handshake!

I like the assumption that we learn our street skills from women. Where? Where are the women? not next door. and not on my floor. I guess we need to hold meetings in a bathroom somewhere and post our phone numbers on the mirrors.

I do feel like blogging is part of being an underworld of knowledge - it's our map to the "backdoor" since it says "no girls allowed" over the front door (even though every now and then, A girl gets through the gate).

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous a physicist said...

As a male PI -- any suggestions for how to improve this with my own lab group? Other than just being aware that this is a general problem?

I have occasionally met with the postdocs working with me and given career advice en masse. So that avoids singling anybody out.

About a year ago I took each grad student out for lunch or coffee for an open-ended, no time limit conversation about their career plans to give them advice.

Sometimes people in my group have sought my advice explicitly. One postdoc kept asking me if he was on track to get a faculty job, and he was quite open to constructive criticism. (Maybe I should just make sure I have conversations every few months with every person in the group about whether or not they are "on track".)

I'm not sure how much of these advice-related conversations targets "street smarts", though.

There is one male postdoc working with me who seems to lack street smarts although otherwise he is the best postdoc who's ever been in my group. I keep trying to give him explicit advice and he keeps resisting it. It's frustrating. He is not good at networking and it takes serious arm-twisting to convince him to do minor things (like email a famous scientist to ask a question that is highly relevant to our research project and highly relevant to the FS's work -- when this circumstance arises naturally, how can you avoid this great opportunity to network?).

(ps: I haven't commented in a while, but I've been lurking this past semester; just been too swamped to comment.)

At 3:21 PM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

I agree with you to an extent. I'm not sure how much of a bias there is in passing street-smart knowledge to men over women, though I can imagine that as a possibility. I think sometimes I ended up with more street smarts than sheer academic smarts. A friend once told me that she wasn't sure if I was a genius or could just sell myself and ideas like nobody's business. The only thing I can think is that though I doubt myself internally and am uber-insecure..... what I present to the world is sheer confidence, absolutely no doubt that what I think and say has merit, and I smile and shrug anytime I'm proven wrong or debate the point till no ones sure what's going on. Then secretly I go home and cry in a bubble bath and eat chocolate and reread the article/textbook/formula/whatever. But you're right, I did learn this from men come to think of it...not the bubble bath part....but it wasn't a mentor, but rather male friends... and not so much by asking as observing. That's my midnight rambling....good luck with everything.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger daedalus2u said...

It isn't just a feminist issue.

I think it relates to the trade-off of "theory of mind" for "theory of reality".

It is harder to play political games once you have trained your mind to think logically and scientifically; and no, you are not an idiot, just someone who can’t play the political games and so is easier to exploit, that is to receive less than you would in a just world.

I know how to describe the problem, I am pretty sure I know what causes the problem, but how to fix the problem? It isn't a scientific problem and it doesn't have a scientific solution.

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My understanding is that street smarts is not something that someone can tell you. All of the street-smart people I know got that way through a combination of hard experience, applied intellect, and basic intuition about how people and organizations work. Furthermore, recipes for success are highly individual-- even if people are willing to share all their secrets, it's unlikely to do much good.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Alienta said...

You get "street smarts" from the street.

You dont get them "handed to you" by anyone.

You dont get them from reading a book.

Those are facts.

The following is just opinion.

100% of success in science comes from chance, or in other words, LUCK. less.

Hard work, preparation, etc. are admirable qualities (of many), but what separates all the hard working scientists out there is dumb luck.

That "luck favors the prepared mind" is a profoundly wrongheaded idea.


At 12:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that street smarts and networks and having friends in high places looking out for you is a huge factor in making or breaking an academic career (and maybe any other career but definitely in academic science that's for sure).

however in my experience it is not always the case that men have it better. I'm a female physics perma-doc. I'm the only female in my lab. The male perma-docs in my lab are floundering as much as I am, because our PI simply sucks and actively refuses to do the things that mentors are supposed to do so we are stuck. Without his support or even his interest, we cannot compete with all the other equally good postdocs who in addition DO have the support and interest of their 'mentors'. (Or at least they don't have their mentors actively working AGAINST them trying to derail them)

One of the male postdocs in my lab left our group because of this frustration with our PI. He did a second postdoc under a female PI. And there he flourished. within a year he had all these job offers because SHE actually kept up her end of the bargain in the "mentor/protege" relationship.

So the street smarts I learned from bitter experience is that there are things that we as postdocs simply do not have access to on our own and that we NEED people in higher places to give us access to. When I realized that my PI refuses to do any of this I've been trying to go it alone but I just cannot push through the roadblocks without a powerful person's backing.

So in my experience it had nothing to do with men looking out for other men. In this case our male PI didn't look out for any of us, male or female. But the female PI looked out for her male protege. Of course I"m trying to transfer to this female PI's lab now too!! but she doesn't currently have funding to take on more postdocs so I'm stuck and thus I'm now giving up on academia and trying to get a job in industry. I know I don't suck, I'm giving up simply because I am so disgusted at the way this system works and I have at least enough street smarts to realize that I don't have the network or support of powerful people whereas my competitors (for jobs) do so I have decided to get out of the game altogether since I know it is not a level playing field and I'm at a big disadvantage.

Also, I totally agree that many if not most people who did become successful, have a tendency to deny the role of good fortune and to assume it was due to their own merits, and to assume that those who are not as successful, suck. They tend to believe in the Just World fallacy.

I recently had to collaborate with another lab with a new young PI. This guy is younger than me and had a very short postdoc. yet from talking and working with him it is clear that of the two of us, I'm the 'better' scientist not to mention I also work a lot harder than him. He can barely keep up his end of our technical conversations without his eyes glazing over. Yet he is condescending to me because he made it to PI-dom and I'm still a postdoc and he has this "now now little lady" attitude toward me. Makes me want to puke.

At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post YFS. A lot of this certainly resonates with my experience.

Something I have found useful was joining the Association for Women in the Sciences (AWIS). It was the first time I had come across a group of people who were supportive and inclusive in science. What a revelation.

We do have a couple of women in our department, but they have not really been great mentors for a variety of reasons. Which pretty much leaves us with trying to join the boys on a day to day basis.

I certainly don't believe in the Just world - I think to believe that would be to accept that the best person for the job is always chosen etc etc.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 12:35 AM,

It's true, there are some PIs who just suck all around. And there are other PIs who are fantastic. I do think the next generation has potential to shift these imbalances. However, in my view, way too many potential future FSPs end up leaving (like you) and if that happens, the imbalances continue to perpetuate.

I think if there's one thing I've learned in the last few years, it's that going it alone doesn't work, but there ARE ways to go AROUND. You might need a machete to get there, but you can take the path less traveled. Sometimes that path can lead you to people who are more powerful and willing to back you. But it takes a helluva a lot of perseverance and certainty that substitute careers won't satisfy.

Your story makes me sad because of this last paragraph about the young idiot PI. I have had that exact same experience. I can't tell you how much empathy I have for how you feel about that. I think it's a major travesty that these things are still happening at such high frequency.

Anon 7:17,

AWIS is a nice idea but it hasn't helped me yet in any tangible way. I've been a member since I started grad school.

I've picked up tidbits in some of the career seminars, and it has been good for networking, but so far none of those contacts have led to jobs or really meaningful mentoring. I even tried to volunteer to be on some committees, but the ratios were ridiculous, something like 19:1 industry:me (as the 1 academic). Not terribly helpful if you're looking for someone to mentor you in publishing papers or applying for faculty positions!

Having said that, I think it's very geography-dependent. Some chapters of AWIS are very industry-heavy, which is not as useful if you want to go into academia. Maybe yours is much more academic?

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 7.17 here again.

AWIS here tends to be very small, with a good balance of academics and industry related people. I think I have been extremely lucky in meeting a handful of great people. I have found though the best stuff by far happens at the biannual conference. A tick for the first time I actually got to schmooze with international prizewinners who did not think they were above everyone else. And got a prospective postdoc offer as well (we couldn't get the funding in the end, but it showed me how things could work).

I don't think I have a lot of streetsmarts so I have been trying to play catchup over the last year in particular - in this regard mentoring via the internet is the best I can come up with.


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