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?