Saturday, March 28, 2009

Things I thought I'd have by now (besides a job)

Lately it has been bothering me that I've been putting a lot of things off, for lack of what a friend mine calls a Real Job(^TM).

Most of the time I don't mind, but watching everyone else get on with their lives makes me wonder if I would be happier if some of these things could be improved with or without a new job?

1. A better place to live

Our current rental is affordable, has parking and laundry and some other amenities. We have a lot of space, and the location makes it a relatively painless commute to lab.

However, it is not perfect, and we never intended to stay here this long. The main reason we've stayed is that the rent has not gone up, and Mr. PhD and I both really hate moving.

(Oh yeah and that part where we never know if we'll have jobs and might have to move to some other part of the country where we can at least be employed)

2. A new car

My car is getting old. It's not running as well as it used to, which is my main complaint. I hate being the person who can't accelerate.

And it has scratches and small dents here and there, but overall it will probably be okay for a few more years.

The last couple of years, though, I've thought it would be nice to get a hybrid. In fact, I've had to watch several friends get hybrids and try to pretend like I'm happy for them. Hmph.

3. Actual furniture

This kind of goes with "better place to live".

I really hate shopping for this kind of thing. Somehow I never seem to have the dimensions right, or the color ends up being wrong, etc. It's a lot of back-and-forth and by then the thing I wanted is not on sale anymore, or the only thing I like is wayyyyy too expensive.

Or as has happened before, I finally get something, and THEN we have to move. And then we realize it looks totally wrong (or doesn't fit) in the new place.

4. A vacation

There never seems to be time.

When there is time to go, there is not enough time to get a flight anywhere.

When there are sales on flights, I can't go.

Things are always up in the air, or experiments are going and need to be babysat on a daily basis. See also #5.

Or I end up using my "vacation" to do things I don't want to do, like attending other people's weddings or baby showers or funerals, or just visiting my parents to make sure they haven't killed each other (yet).

5. Help in the lab

Okay, so I have a student working with me a few days a week, but it's not really the same as having, you know, an actual technician.

I really thought that by now, even as a postdoc, I would have at least a partial share of a professional tech (sort of like how the PIs often share parts of admins) to help take care of stuff if I do go out of town or get sick.

6. Savings

See under "You should really invest: Oh, nevermind."

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Friday, March 27, 2009

So much to do, so little ability to focus.

It's funny how the things we most love about research can also be the things we most hate.

I'm having the problem right now that the variety, the endless possibilities, the irregularity that I love most about working in a lab.

There are too many things I could do, and I am really hating it.

No one thing stands out as having much more potential to be fun or insightful than the others, and I am particularly bothered that none of it seems potentially fun at all.

Usually data cheers me up, but I don't have any right now. None of the things I need to do is likely to lead to exciting data anytime soon.

And so I am debating what to do. That is another thing I can do- take stock, plan, collect supplies.

This week, I am wishing all I had to do was collect pieces of flair and go through the motions.

Sometimes I want that assembly-line job where I could just tune out and go on auto-pilot.

When I feel like this, I usually try to line up something reasonably mechanical or repetitive to do, but right now I don't have anything like that going. Getting to that point in any of my current activities will require more thought and creativity and supply-getting.

This is when I guess if I were a PI, I would be sitting on committees and troubleshooting for my students. I'd like to think I would be enjoying it, because focusing on other people's problems usually helps me with my own (sort of like reading blogs).

Meanwhile, because I don't want to be a postdoc forever (or at all), I have been doing these interesting career exercises where you are supposed to write out what your perfect job would be like. You're supposed to visualize.

My perfect job would be like FSP's, and I would like to be every bit as serene as she seems.

But since I am a postdoc, my best options for taking a step back (while still showing up to work) are things like going to seminars and reading. I tried reading first, but I can't focus, and it's just adding to my feeling that everything I do is just a drop in a giant ocean of scientists, so why would anyone care.

Usually, going to seminars can be really good for breaking the monotony or giving me ideas, but lately it can also be a bit heartbreaking when it seems like all the talks are for graduating students (getting on with their lives) or "peers" interviewing for jobs (the job I want, also being forced to watch other people getting on with their lives).

More or less heartbreaking, too, are the seminars from senior profs who are presenting the work of a lifetime, and I am still debating just how badly I ever want to get to that point.

When it's this much sacrifice and daily misery, you have to ask yourself, how much is this really worth to me? Haven't I already paid enough?

Speaking of, did you see Southpark this week? I feel like that, where Stan gives his money to the banker and the banker takes it and says:

"And... it's gone. Thank you, please move along."

I was reading Dr. J & H's idea about a karma bank, re: the idea of making your own luck.

I really do believe that's true, in terms of data. Of course, nobody will know about it if you can't figure out how to make it into a story. But still, basically true that the more experiments you do, the more data you will get.

It's just not true in terms of jobs. Politics, against all logic, are not really tit-for-tat.

Especially when you're dealing with soul-sucking parasitic PIs.

So I'm not sure what I've been making all this time, karma-wise, but I would really like to cash it in for some kind of consolation prize if I can't get the stuffed bunny I really wanted.

I would like that consolation karma bunny now, preferably stuffed with cotton candy.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

I'd rather be blogging.

More later.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Nevermind, I don't really want a career.

It's that time of year- the time when everyone seems to be running Career Workshops.

The women are doing them, the postdocs are doing them, my professional societies are doing them.

I don't want to attend any of them.

I've been there, heard that, and it doesn't really help.

I mean, if you're totally naive and think it's as simple as A + B --> Career, then by all means, go.

But you can't make me go. No.

And I would really appreciate it if I could get fewer emails about them. Maybe I can set up a filter on my email (-Career)?

Lately I am thinking about grants and whether to apply for industry and/or academia, and I have to be honest with myself. I don't want to do any of it.

I'm tired of the whole Sisyphus thing, and I'm tired of being miserable.

I'm tired of working my butt off and having nothing to show for it.

I'm tired of never having a vacation and every year wondering if I will have insurance next year or how much I should pay in estimated taxes, since there's a significant chance that I'll have no job at all?

I'm tired of deciding every day what to do next, or having my plans all in shambles because the shared equipment is always broken (I'm tired of getting those emails about what's broken now).

No really, what's broken now? Because I so wanted to use that thing last week when my samples were ready!

I'm especially tired of people giving me Career Advice I Didn't Ask for.

What I could use is a little, I don't know. Painkiller?

I am tired of recovering from the delusion that it would be possible to get a job doing what I was "trained" for. Little did I know that recovering from it would be worse than realizing it.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dear NIH,

It is your party line that postdocs do not write RO1s.

This is completely false, and you must know it. However, no actions have been taken to officially recognize or correct the problem.

I am writing today to say that several times in the last month or so, I have heard this advice given to postdocs as if it is a respectable way to stay employed:

Offer to write an R01 in some PI's name, and in exchange if it gets funded, they will pay you off that R01.

But we have fellowships, you say? Let's be honest here. NRSA and K mechanisms are widely and inaccurately advertised. Most postdocs are not eligible for them, and they are in no case sufficient to cover the entire span of postdoctoral experience.

Instead, increasingly many postdocs are buying into this completely unethical approach as a way to continue doing science when their attempts at getting fellowships have failed, or when their fellowships have run out before they achieve job security.

What none of these often desperate postdocs seem to understand is that their participation in these kinds of schemes is not a guarantee of job security or advancement.

If anything, it undermines the whole concept of independent research in this country.

Furthermore, it strongly suggests that many PIs who are currently running labs perhaps do not fit their job description, and have no qualms about breaching ethics to continue the charade that they can fulfill their responsibilities.

And, these same PIs are encouraging others to pursue unethical behavior that fundamentally undermines what still passes for being a "system" of funding scientific research based on "merit".

Perhaps most importantly, it is generally not recognized that this is also evidence that postdocs do not need more "training".

In fact, in some ways it is the best evidence that postdocs are already independent enough to write entire R01s. It calls into question all the arbitrary distinctions between postdocs and junior PIs.

It demonstrates, in fact, that neither ability nor achievement earn advancement in this "system", since these ghost-author postdocs cannot list these R01s as their own achievements and instead they are credited to their PI's account!

Even in the cases where they are successful at getting funded, these postdoc ghost-authors remain vastly underpaid and abused, as they serve out their time being paid by these R01s.

And the cycle will perpetuate itself, because the more postdocs agree to do this, the more it will become expected.

Perhaps most frightening is the twisted thinking that follows from this kind of reward system. Some of these postdocs actually believe that their ideas are only reviewed fairly when they propose them under their PIs name, rather than their own.

In fact, I'm sure you know that the truth is probably the opposite, that bad ideas are seen for what they are when proposed by a junior person, but taken on faith when proposed by someone with an "established track record".

Do you understand what that shows about the peer review system? Do you understand what this kind of thinking does to our future scientists, who should be objective about their work and whose work should be reviewed objectively?

NIH, you must change your policies on who can write grants and require promotions to go along with them. You must overhaul current granting mechanisms. You must work with universities to develop reasonable job titles and advancement policies for scientists in this country, and you must to enforce them at the university and funding award levels.



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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Response to comments on previous post re: Americans as a minority in American Science

Tried to respond previously, but blogger ate my comment and I didn't have time to start over. I figured this way at least I can save incrementally...

Got a lot of comments on this one, many of them valid, equally many reactionary and non-constructive. And some of which addressed points I want to re-emphasize.

Chall said:

I find that there are fewer American female post docs (at least where I am) than male, even compared to the foreign ratio. In that you might be correct to assume that as a female American postdoc you have to compete with the foreign male post docs, as well as the few female foreigners on top of the male Americans.

Which made me feel a little bit justified in writing the original post.

But then Chall said:

I don't think this makes it "another factor working against you" - if nothing else because the key ingredient of getting that faculty job is networking/knowing the field/being known in the US and as a US born,bred and science thaught[sic] with an american [sic] mentor you have a huge advantage against at least the average foreign post docs.

Which raises a point I want to address.

1. Just because I have an American advisor does NOT give me, as an American female postdoc, a default advantage.

All of my peers are foreign postdocs who have the same advisor.

It's more important that our advisor LIKES us, which means that we have to meet certain expectations. So far as I can tell, the expectations for Americans are different than those for foreign postdocs.

In fact, American PIs seem to expect less from foreign postdocs in terms of writing skills and speaking skills, which is generally fair (especially if you haven't been in the country that long).

However, this can also be used indefinitely as a manipulation tool, and an all-purpose backup excuse. Just this week I heard about different instances at two different universities where a superdoc (in one case) and a PI (in the other) who have both been in the US for over 10 years used the "Oh, my English is so bad I must have misunderstood" as their excuse for majorly unethical behavior.

Give me a break. It only works as an excuse for so long, people. You can't have it both ways. If you want to stay in the country and have a job here as a scientist, it seems unfair that we grant you a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card!

Anon at 4:13 pm wrote:

the pale male stale humans think hiring furriners is DIVERSITY.

This is an interesting point. Is it really diversity?

I guess culturally you could say so, but what about the differences in how women are treated? I'm thinking in particular of certain cultures where it's quite common for the man to come to the US as a postdoc, with unemployed (and work visa-less) wife in tow (and stuck at home).

These men often bring with them, into the lab, some really nasty biases against women working at all, much less being peers in the scientific workplace (or, god forbid, authority figures).

And then these guys become PIs, and soon enough they're on search committees. That is the inevitable conclusion of bringing more men in and promoting them into positions of authority (over women).

Perhaps if we wised up about the role of expectations and cultural diversity in science, this would be less a source of future discrimination and more of an advantage for scientific progress?

Seems like right now it's a trade-off where American women are signing up for workplace abuse, not just from their sexist American advisors, but also from co-workers who may or may not realize how offensive they're being.

Here's an example: a while back I had to do some heavy lifting as a normal part of my job. Normally nobody is there to watch me.

This particular time, one of my (male, foreign) co-workers said to me, "Wow, you're pretty strong for a girl." He's one of the ones with a stay-at-home wife.

And I don't need that kind of crap at work. A more appropriate phrasing might have been something like "Wow, good job! Thanks for doing that!"

Am I supposed to grant him a pass because his English isn't so good?

Amusingly enough, one of the foreign female postdocs actually said the same thing to me a while later.

Am I really that strong "for a girl"? I don't think so. But she had been using the excuse that she was female as a way to get out of doing this particular lab chore.

Anon 6:09 pm wrote:

I think many American students avoid PhD sciences precisely in part for this unspoken reason.

Really? Are students aware of this? I wasn't.

In fact, it never occurred to me that it would bother me at all. From the very first lab I worked in, I relished the exposure to other cultures.

It has only been very recently that I've begun to notice an accumulation of some major drawbacks.

Sure, I had some problems in grad school with men of the "women can't do that" variety, but they were avoidable. There was the one postdoc in a rotation (didn't join that lab), and the other postdoc in a potential collaboration (didn't do the collaboration).

But more recently it has been a more general problem, extending beyond the sexism-from-men to sexism from the other foreign women postdocs who seem to think I'm somehow defective because I don't want to have children. Or the kinds of assumptions like the one Chall mentioned, that just because I'm American and my PI is American that gives me some kind of secret handshake to the in-club (it doesn't).

Unbalanced Reaction wrote:

Americans are by far the norm at small liberal arts colleges

Which brings up another interesting point.

Perhaps it's related to the way Americans are totally clueless about what science and research really are. We're too far removed from the rest of society, so they don't really care. We're part of the dreaded intellectual elite, and say what you will about the US, but even with Obama as President, we're still generally against intellectualism in this country (myself not included, thank you very much).

My point being, maybe we think foreigners shouldn't be teaching our kids (this was certainly true where I grew up). So we want Americans as teachers.

Another good example was a recent news piece I heard on the dearth of nurses in this country. There was a proposal to bring in foreign nurses to help fill all the empty jobs and get the work done, but it was massively rejected.

So while there are some areas where we look the other way, other areas are seen as "too important" to outsource. The thinking is that we don't want grandma and grandpa being looked after by foreigners, do we?

The other thing that amused me about that story was the reason why we don't have enough nurses. They said nursing instructors are paid less, and working nurses are paid more. So nobody wants to be a nursing instructor.

Maybe we should take a page from that model as a way to get rid of all these lazy-ass PIs who make tons of money off their postdocs?

I'm just sayin'.

an immigrant said:

I do feel that in general, foreigners are more willing to endure hardship than Americans.

And this is exactly the point I was making.

There is a bias to believe that:

a. Foreigners work harder in general, because Americans are lazy/pampered

b. Foreigners are willing to work for cheap

c. Foreigners have no other options, so they'll do anything to get a job and keep it

If this is what everyone believes, then I think my hypothesis must be correct. Surely any logical person would rather hire the helpless, hardworking, non-demanding employee/colleague than a spoiled, lazy, whiny American?


And they can assume all this from the comfort of... never having even met me. Just because I'm American.

Just like many of you apparently do (based on some of the comments I've received over the years of writing this blog).

Professor in Training wrote:

Native English speakers have a natural advantage when interviewing for faculty positions (of course, this doesn't give you an advantage over native English speaking foreigners).

2. Just because I have spoken English all my life, does NOT give me an advantage in interviews.

First of all, I can't even GET any interviews.

But assuming that I could, here's a good example. I have now had several of these informal sneak-attack "pre-interviews" where PIs casually ask me about my personal life or my PI.

And here's the thing you're perhaps not getting. As a Native English speaker, I am expected to understand and utilize all kinds of innuendo and nuance that maybe foreign postdocs never experience, because it's not expected.

If I make even the slightest faux-pas- intended or otherwise, I'm screwed.

Whether you intend to take advantage of it or not, if English is not your first language, the expectations are slightly relaxed.

I love this example, where a foreign postdoc - whose English was nearly perfect, so far as I could tell - said that the data in his figures had been "manipulated."

And nobody blinked.

But as a Native speaker, to me using that word implies "falsified" or "adjusted to promote a certain outcome."

But he can say things like that. If for some reason I used a word- maybe even without knowing it or meaning to- I would be out of the running for a job.

The expectations are just different.

RFS wrote:

How about the extreme case: would it be a bad thing if science done in the US was done by immigrants that intend to stay here?

Isn't that the case now? That was sort of my point.

Joana wrote:

I'm sure you don't want to have science full of women just for the statistics...

And that's true. I would not want science to be done only by women.

Lately I'm more and more in favor of trying to aim for parity...

But we're not there yet.

Anon @7:33 wrote:

Despite all of your complaints about men, I have to say my blog post would be aptly titled "As an American male I'm a minority in my profession". I'm a postdoc at a high level American institution, biomed sciences. The VAST majority of postdocs in our department are not Americans, and I'd say more than 60% are female. That's why I have so much trouble understanding your rants against men;Don't get me wrong, I can see that there's discrimination against women based on your blog and the responses from other women. I just don't see it as much in my day to day life. Its hard to imagine that the male minority here is actually controlling the female majority.

Anyhow, I think you may see a shift in the demographics of science in the next several years. If the majority of postdocs and grad students are women, then soon the majority of PI's should be as well. Men just aren't into the biomed sciences these days, and its understandable. You can't make a very good living on a postdoc salary, and unless you have some family money or your spouse makes a lot of money, its really not worth the pain and effort.

Sigh. I'm going to try to take the good parts of this comment as agreeing with me, and correct the rest.

So as an American, you say you also feel you're in the minority.

60% female is barely a majority, but okay.

But when you say, It's hard to imagine that the male minority here is actually controlling the female majority, you're missing a really important point.

That's actually how the ENTIRE WORLD WORKS. There are MORE women than men IN THE WORLD. And yet, men are in charge of almost everything.

So maybe if you look at it that way, it's not that surprising that men dominate science?

Then you wrote, If the majority of postdocs and grad students are women, then soon the majority of PI's should be as well.

WRONG AGAIN. As you might have noticed in one of my recent posts, women have been the majority of undergraduate and grad students for a while now. And yet, they're still not the majority of postdocs or PIs.

So your "majority input leads to majority output" theory has a major hole in it.

And your comment about men not being into the biomed sciences... first of all, I don't really think that's true. But second, I think what you meant to say is that actually the graduate student applications in general were declining (before the economy crashed, that is). That would be both men and women. It's just that men can blame the lack of salary, while women have been blaming the hostile culture for decades. We just put up with the crappy salary because we were happy to be allowed to work outside the home at all!

Thanks to (almost) everyone who commented. This turned out to be a very interesting and enlightening discussion.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Brainwashing of American Postdocs

Lately I am reading (in avoidance of all those papers my peers are publishing all around me): psychology books.

I never took psychology in college, so I'm a little late to the party. I did read one book about brainwashing during the cultural revolution in China.

The main thing I remember about that book were the torture techniques they used to break down prisoners' sense of self, including starvation, the water-drop technique, and making them write out pledges that said things like 2+2=5.

The idea being that if you can make them feel lost and helpless, when you throw them a rope, no matter how illogical, they will grab on.

These days I've been reading a lot of books about sales and advertising, for some reason it always amused me to watch people figuring out how to make a pitch (watched too much thirtysomething as a kid?).

It's really interesting, all the little techniques you can use to get people to comply with your requests.

I'm particularly interested because I see PIs doing these things all the time.

Some of them go like this:

The foot-in-the-door technique: You agree to something small that you don't want to do, and psychologically this makes you more likely to agree to do larger things you want even less. For a postdoc, a good example would be taking a rotation student you don't want, and then having it work out a little better than you expected.... even though it still sucks. But regardless of how it works out, this kind of give-an-inch makes you much more likely to agree to give a mile, like when you then agree to ghostwrite part of your advisor's grant.

The consistency principle : You agree to do certain things because they've become part of your persona, not because it's what you really want. For a postdoc, this is akin to keeping up appearances by being in lab all the time even when you don't want to be or have nothing to do, because you've become accustomed to everyone viewing you as The One Who Works Hard.

Reciprocation : Also known as Guilt. This is when someone you don't like or trust does you a favor without your asking, and then you feel obligated to do some irritating lab maintenance thing for them while they're on vacation.

Contrast and compare : Your advisor asks you to do something completely ridiculous, like an experiment that will take 4 years and will never work, so you say no. Then your advisor asks you to do something less onerous- say, an experiment that will take 1 year and has a slim chance of working- so you say yes. Under normal circumstances, you would never have agreed to do the 2nd ridiculous thing, but it seems less ridiculous than the first, plus you feel bad about saying no to the first thing.

So you see where I'm going with this.

Among other things, I'm interested in why, when postdocs become PIs, they suddenly switch from "The system is flawed" to "The system is fine."

I think we're losing a lot of gusto at that stage.

We're also losing a lot of women.

I had to laugh because NSF just released a bunch of new data on women postdocs, not unlike some that NIH quietly posted on their websites a while back (see for instance this link).

But talk about How to Lie with Statistics!

The NSF graphs clearly show ~5% increase in women over the last 10 years in most fields, and yet the text says, and I quote:

Women accounted for a rising share of postdocs in all fields except computer sciences and in 2006 represented one-third of all S&E postdocs, up from 29% in 1996.

Uh, yeah. You're telling me "a rising share" is a fair and balanced way to express the reality of "up from 29% to one-third"????!!!!

Just how stupid do they think we are???

Doesn't NSF have some obligation to present the data, you know, accurately and objectively?

Clearly, with language like that, they have an agenda. I don't think I have to tell you what it is.

In fact, the data clearly show we're gaining very little ground if any, especially when you compare it with the numbers of women in the same fields in graduate school (for which I am too lazy to dig up the link, but you're smart, you can find it).

So far as I can tell, it's just a really steep dropoff when you hit the end of the postdoc road.

Much of this is, I think, because of the Consistency principle. We might have some women faculty and even some sympathetic male faculty, but they are often unwilling to help us at all because of the brainwashing event that apparently takes place when you sign onto your startup.

The logic goes:

The system is broken --> but the system likes me --> therefore, the system is not broken, because I refuse to admit I got my job based on knowing people and not on my scientific qualifications alone.

In fact, I originally thought maybe I'd write this from the point of view of graduate students, who often go through the cycle like this:

grad school will be easy ---> grad school sucks and I'm miserable --> grad school was not that bad, I was never miserable at all

Not entirely unlike a prisoner in a brainwashing camp.

What do you think? What techniques has your PI used on you? And would you say they were successful in getting you to comply?

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Whatever happened to scientific discourse

I've been biting my tongue a lot lately, and it's really taking the fun out of science.

When I started doing research, I remember being really impressed at the intellectual arguments going on all around me, and how impersonal it all was.

I really liked that. Intellectual arguments fit with my picture of academia- bookish types arguing excitedly about bookish things! And wearing tweed jackets!

And I was coming from a very fucked-up household, where everything was personal and fighting was always the nastiest hyperbole ("you'll never amount to anything" type of stuff).

So I liked that science was vocal yet unemotional, or relatively anyway.

Lately it seems like science has become synonymous with censorship, at least in public. It's what one of my friends calls the "Midwestern sensibility", which is to say, you keep your mouth shut in public, and then gossip and/or backstab all you want when you're back with your allies.

To me, this totally defeats the purpose of doing science. If we're not going to have open discussions about the data, why bother?

For instance, I've worked in some labs where no one wants to say anything during lab meeting, for fear that the PI will latch onto any suggestion like a bulldog, no matter how stupid the experiment or how uninformative the potential outcomes.

This makes for incredibly dull lab meetings, with everyone awkwardly shifting in their seats and making sidelong glances... and saying nothing.

Those same labs are inevitably the ones that trash every paper they read for journal club- because apparently once something is published, it is

a) permanent, and therefore okay to talk shit about it;
b) probably wrong;
c) nowhere near as good as anything we're doing ourselves, obviously.

Wait, what?

I'm not sure which drives me crazier. Listening to the totally unbalanced critiques of papers, knowing that these same postdocs may someday (or may already) be reviewing my papers and being totally unfair about it... or watching everyone smile and nod like it's all okay when it's being presented, and then turn around and trash it once it's in print.

Admittedly, I know there are often good or at least strongly political reasons for not saying anything in public. I myself have run into this before, where I've raised concerns about certain data to my PI in private, only to have it made loud and clear that no one in the group (much less anywhere else) is to know about it.

So if I'm suspiciously quiet, that is sometimes the reason. Much as it kills me to play along, for the moment I am still trying to play the game.

I keep wondering if those cards will turn out to be useful in the end?

But I hate to think that is why everyone is so quiet these days? Rampant falsification and buried knowledge of artifactitude?

That's a horrifying thought.

I always assumed everyone was just shy, except that lately even the most revered loudmouths of years past are keeping quiet.

I always admired the loudmouths, especially since I didn't work for them. From a distance, even when they were jerks, they were at least really entertaining about it. At least they had gumption, and apparently tenure.

But now it's like all the life has gotten sucked out of science.

So what's going on? Did the masses close in and weed out all the loudmouth jerks? Have they all just gone underground?

I suspect self-censorship, probably brought on by the burgeoning wealth of political nonsense going on behind the scenes. Somewhere along the line I started paying more attention to what people don't say, to the obvious silence when there shouldn't be one.

For example, we've all seen the talks where no one asks any questions afterwards, and it's clear it's only for bad reasons, e.g.

a) the talk was incomprehensible
b) the data were so bad no one knows where to begin.

Is that why it seems like science is going downhill? A lot of it is crap, everybody knows it, but nobody wants to say anything?

I can't help feeling like politics are poisoning everything.

Meanwhile, I feel totally cut off from any kind of feedback on my work. My PIs are useless, and my fellow labmates never say anything about anyone's data. They seem to think discussing our ongoing science is somehow impolite.

It fits with the trend I've noticed of thesis committees not wanting to actually read anyone's thesis- they only allow chapters that have already been published, since it means they've already been peer-reviewed by someone else. Which also fits with search committees not wanting to look at unpublished manuscripts.

So then we have to conclude that it's only permissible to discuss science in postmortem.

Which means that all the real decision making always happens anonymously, behind closed doors.

Why is that okay? And how do we form a movement of people who agree that it's not?

I learned a new word the other day that I really like to describe what is happening in science: we have too many sheeple.

The real problem with the herd mentality is the herd behavior. If no one says anything, no one else will either. Everyone just goes along, and nothing will change.

Or maybe I'm just pessimistic since the whole Obama hope thing wore off.

That didn't take very long.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dear Joss Whedon

Dear Joss Whedon,

I am enjoying Dollhouse, but lately I am really needing to hear the soundtrack from Buffy Season 7, particularly the (Irish?) battle theme from the very last episode.

I can't find it anywhere online and don't really know how to strip these things from DVDs (but I might have to learn if I get desperate enough).

Would greatly appreciate it if you could make that available for my addicted listening, ideally through iTunes? Please?

Thank you,


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Saturday, March 07, 2009

As an American, I'm a minority in my profession.

Yes, I am a minority in more ways than one.

I'm planning to attend a couple of meetings this year, so I was looking at the breakdown of speakers on the schedule.

I was surprised to note not just the breakdown of women (25-30% if you count both short and long talks, more like 10% if you count only women giving long talks). But honestly, I'm not that surprised.

You might be surprised to note, however, two things. First, both of these meetings with less-than-parity involved at least one woman organizer. So it's not like only men were involved in choosing the speakers (it is widely argued that having more women help with these tasks will necessarily result in parity, but that's not exactly true).

Second, everyone else who looked at these lists thought they were seeing parity (e.g. they thought it was 50%).

When I told them it's actually twice as bad as they perceive, they were surprised.

Our perception is so skewed, we don't even recognize how bad things are. (Quantitative measures, people! Use them! Love them!)

Personally, I was much more surprised to note how few US-born scientists there are in the US. At all levels. We're not just less than half, we're on average only a quarter of the total scientists at the post-PhD levels.

I knew that the postdoc numbers have drifted past the mid-line in recent years, with more than half the postdocs in our country coming from other countries.

And we know that while there are almost equal numbers of women postdocs as male postdocs, especially in the early years, for some reason I hadn't quite grasped what the national origin breakdown translated into for science faculty.

In other words, most of our science faculty in the US are not from the US. Already. We're not talking about outsourcing eventually becoming the norm, as for some industries. Outsourcing of scientific talent has already been the norm for a lot of years, but no one has been talking about it.

So I'm really feeling like a rare species these days, and not in a good way. There are some America-born women who are faculty, to be sure. But there are very few American-born women postdocs.

I can't help feeling like it's somehow perceived as more okay to be smart and professional if you have a cool accent, or that it's somehow more permissible to occasionally make a mistake and blame it on English not being your first language?

I've heard people say that recipients of NIH fellowships (as grad students and/or postdocs) will have a better chance at a faculty position, but I don't see that supported by the numbers.

Only US citizens are eligible for those funding sources, so if it were a real advantage, we would not be in the minority of those getting hired for faculty positions.

Among the students from my graduate school, it's mostly those who came from outside the US (I'm not saying 'overseas' because I'm including Canada) who are getting interviews now.

What's up with that? I don't see any obvious correlations with publications, creativity, or any other measure that should correlate with productivity or potential for success.

Is this just a cultural perception that they work harder? Is this the "my visa is running out" phenomenon I've blogged about before, where PIs prioritize which postdocs they promote based on who is most likely to be deported?

Is this just another factor working against me that I didn't even know about?

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

To answer your question: find another lab, ASAP

Someone asked:

I have a question (which is not related to your post): what can one do/think/expect from a PI who hired you without an official offer letter yet says he's funding is not clear at the moment? (when that "hired" postdoc already turned down a several positions with already funded projects)

Would be great to hear your and commenters opinions.

First of all, being "hired" without an official offer letter is NOT being hired.

That is what we call a verbal offer, which is NOT the same.

Second, do not EVER make plans based on a verbal offer. INSIST on a written contract before you make any plans.

Third, if you already made this mistake, and the PI is disorganized or disingenuous and jerking you around (good intentions or otherwise), get out NOW before you waste any more time.

If, in the worst case scenario, you already moved to a new university, try to find someone else in town if you don't want to relocate again.

If not, call everyone else back and tell them quite honestly why you picked that lab (seemed like a good fit for what you wanted) and that you really had a hard time choosing, but that the funding fell through on the one you picked and you're really hoping the position(s) you were offered before are still open.

In other words, suck it up, apologize, and beg if you have to. This is assuming, of course, that the other offers you had are actually good ones for good labs where you'd be happy to work. And you better hope it's not too late or that some of them have additional funding/enough interest in you to shuffle some things around and take you anyway.

My guess is that you thought PI #1 was a nice guy, and that's why you picked him, whereas the other labs might have been more organized and productive and potentially better for your career, but you didn't like the PIs or the location as much.


Take this as a good chance to avoid making a major mistake. "nice" is actually NOT the major defining quality of a good MENTOR or BOSS. The #1 thing you need in a PI is someone who is responsible, and #2 is someone who is going to keep your career prospects in mind and always communicate clearly with you. This PI has failed already on both counts, so I say GET OUT.

If a PI screws up on something as big as hiring a postdoc and making sure to have money to pay them, you can bet they're also going to screw up on even bigger things, like staying employed and funded in general, not to mention making sure YOU stay employed and have ample opportunities to succeed.

Good luck.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

If you can't take the heat, I don't blame you.

I'm kind of saddened, but also heartened, by these comments from other women postdocs saying what a miserable time we're having.

Yes, we are.

I was talking to some older women scientists recently and one of them said to me,

If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen!

Get out, yourself, you old bitch! You're the reason it's like this!

Yes, you!

So today, instead of blaming the men, I'm going to take a moment and blame the cowardly women who keep their heads down and try to pretend like everything is okay and will resolve itself eventually if we just put up and shut up long enough.

Newsflash: IT WON'T.

We need some kind of scientific equivalent of a pink underwear resistance .

What should we have? Pink pipettes? Suggestions?

I'm sorry girls, but the women who came before us? HAVEN'T CHANGED ANYTHING. And they're NOT going to help you. Or me.

Meanwhile, the men are all acting like whiny little preteens. I'm disgusted to hear men complaining about open scientific discussion like it's somehow uncouth... although come to think of it, they're all assholes to each other and to us, but they seem to be really uncomfortable with seeing women talking about science with other women.

Hmm. What is that about? Could this be the opposite of the whole two women = automatic lesbian fantasy? Are we causing some kind of cognitive dissonance when we're more than a singular anomaly?

Or is it just the possibility that we're actually more objective and more detached about our work, precisely because we have a better view of the big picture of life? Is that what makes them so nervous? Why do I think they're really the emotional ones?

Oh right, because they're so insecure.

I don't know, I don't know where we're supposed to go. The men mostly aren't going to help us, and even the sympathetic ones can't because they're all in the same boat as we are- getting screwed over. The women aren't helping because of the "poor me syndrome", thinking they had it so much worse (they didn't).

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about all these hiring freezes etc. like the axe is still on the way down. I'm just trying to decide if I'd rather walk the plank, or if it would be better to get shot instead?

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