Thursday, April 30, 2009

Things I'll miss about working at a university.

1. The coffee cart

Hear me out on this one, because it's not about the coffee. It's about the student energy, all the crazy posters and activities going on. It's about overhearing researchers and teachers from other departments talking about things they're working on. Reading the campus magazine.

2. Seminars

Sure, there are always meetings and visiting people giving talks, etc. But the sheer variety of options is much broader at a university. Even if I rarely made it over to hear about art and literature (or whatever), I could sometimes do that if I wanted to. Just knowing it was there, just seeing it listed on the campus calendar, was somehow soothing to me. Not being trapped in too narrow of a bubble.

3. The women's center

Something about this, and the LGBT office, just warms my heart. Sure, there are all kinds of organizations devoted to women in various careers, blah blah blah. There are always the book clubs. But this was amazing, going to hear successful women PIs talking about how they got where they are, despite all the crap that goes on. Trying to strategize. Okay, so it never helped me much in any tangible way, but it was comforting to know that even if I was alone in my lab, since I was on a campus, I was not alone.

4. Fresh blood

By that I mean, the constant influx of students and postdocs and young faculty from all over the world doing all kinds of things. Yeah, sometimes the internationality of it gets old, like having to remove all English idioms from your speech because none of the non-native speakers know what you mean, etc. But there's something to be said for having students around, always asking new questions that no one else has the perspective or guts to ask. And because having students around means you'll never again truly be the bottom of the totem pole.

5. Cutting edge toys just for the sake of playing with them

Where else can you get so much new stuff just for the sake of seeing what it can do? With no pressure to produce something profitable anytime soon?

6. History and future

This one is hard to measure, but there's something about an established school. It doesn't have to be about the age of the place, just that people put a lot of hopes and dreams into the location, and they plan to be around for a while longer even if you don't stay. Even better, some of the jerks might leave, and it will probably still be there, only better.

I think this is different from working at a company, where you never know if or when the whole place might completely go under. Sure, I hated grad school and used to wish mine would burn to the ground, but with the soft focus blur of time gone by, I don't feel that way about it anymore. In a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way, I actually enjoy going back there once in a while. Almost exactly how I feel about my other, real home.

7. Flexibility

One of the things that drew me to science in the first place was, oddly enough, my perception that working whatever hours were required would make it easier to have kids. Lo and behold, I ended up feeling like I didn't really want kids, even as it became obvious that the flexible hours thing doesn't help much unless you have the ideal partner... and ideally, daycare too.

I still take advantage of the flexibility, working weekends when I'm not wanting to see too many people, or working from home when I need to. I only have a few meetings a week that occur at set times; the rest is up to me. I can't imagine there are too many jobs that work this way, where you can pretty much come and go as you please.

8. Independence

Perhaps the thing I'll miss most is the idea that I could be my own boss eventually if I just worked hard enough. I know this isn't really true, you still have to pander to a variety of jerks to keep your grants afloat and your papers in press, but the delusion that I could choose was very motivating for my creative tendencies.

The idea of going to work on someone else's vision just doesn't have the same appeal. Sure, maybe it's time to grow up and get a Real Job, or whatever they call it these days (rent?). But I don't think there are that many arenas where creative independence is such a hot commodity that hundreds of people are climbing over each other just to get the chance to try to have it.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Worth a read: End the University

I'm not really into link-blogging per se, but if you do nothing else productive today, go read this.

Marc C. Taylor, department chair and professor of religion at Columbia, is proposing some old ideas for fixing higher education that we've been talking about for ages. Funnily enough, some of these are the same "solutions" that science curricula/med school departments/NIH program projects already use (with no obvious benefits, I might add).

Allow me to elaborate (after all, it's a blog).

1. Restructure the curriculum to get rid of overspecialization.

Great idea, Marc, but here's why it won't work in the absence of other changes you propose (see below).

The curriculum is not the same as the departments. I didn't understand this fundamental problem until I started looking for a faculty position of my own.

I was trained in a sort of "umbrella" graduate program, as these are becoming the norm in the biomedical sciences. However, departments still don't hire this way. If they can't figure out where to put you, forget about getting a job. So the structure of the university has to change first or in parallel for this suggestion to be of any use.

2. Abolish permanent departments and create problem-focused programs.

Great idea, Marc, but it would have to happen everywhere simultaneously for this to get any traction. Any idea how to make that happen?

Here's the thing. This suggestion suffers from the same problem as suggestion #1 up there, that some schools have already tried to start problem-focused programs as cross-departmental efforts. Again, the employment opportunities for the graduates of these programs rest on the assumption that employers will know what these programs are.

In addition, NIH has been funding problem-directed program projects for years. You know what happens? People apply for the money under the guise of doing something related to the problem at hand, and then they go right on doing what they've been doing.

To put a finer point on it, in the absence of forced retirement and abolishing tenure, as you propose below, this suggestion would amount to nothing more than the renaming of existing departments.

You're also missing a couple of critical points in your Op-Ed, Marc. You say even for undergraduate programs, you want to do this?

Here's the thing. The way education works now, you have to give grades. There is a clear differential between students who pay tuition, and faculty who get paid to teach. What you're proposing isn't going to sit well with people who insist on hierarchies, and who refuse to treat high school graduates as adults rather than children (even though they kinda are, actually, adults already).

What you're really proposing, from what I can tell, is to turn universities into giant think-tank research companies, where students are paying for the privilege of being interns?

Which is not necessarily bad. I'm against grading, personally, but how are you going to standardize evaluations? How are you going to justify it if you have to kick someone out? Are you going to fall back on the established rules and regulations used in industry? In which case, how are you going to avoid corruption from students offering to pay extra to get ahead? Since they're paying to be there anyway, this sets up a dangerous precedent, methinks.

Also, how are you going to distribute the money? Don't you think the departments that work directly on how to generate tangible, marketable products (chemistry, engineering) are going to have a hard time justifying inclusion and payment for departments who don't (like yours)?

3. Marc writes: Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Marc. This suggestion is not helpful. Half the staff? Why? Shouldn't we, in the current economy, be looking for ways to GENERATE jobs, rather than cut them?

Your statement about one college having a strong department in one thing, and another in a different area... this already happens. You don't have to codify it.

What's interesting to me is that you're proposing to formalize something that students and postdocs already do: generate collaborations across institutions to get what we need. Even when our PIs/advisors/faculty won't speak to each other, or don't know about each other, we will and we do.

It doesn't mean there have to be fewer jobs. But I really don't see why you're trying to propose that anyway.

I won't claim to know the data on distance learning, but personally I don't really want to do it if I don't have to, and I don't really see why anyone would.

4.Transform the traditional dissertation.

Do it. I absolutely agree with this. Nobody reads them anyway, not even the thesis committees. Might as well make them in a format accessible and useful to the public.

But beware: this might encourage students by giving them a way to actually make a contribution to society!

I'm just sayin'.

5. Marc writes: Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education.

This one cracks me up. He has NO idea how to do this.

What jobs, Marc?

Also, this is something we've been proposing for ages in the sciences, but nobody really listens to us. We've said for a while that there should be different tracks in graduate school for those who want to do science journalism vs. policy vs. product development vs. basic research vs. teaching.

So, great idea Marc. Not original, but always glad to see it mentioned. Wish somebody would start doing it already.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure


Well anyway. Yeah.

But what Marc then proposes is to replace tenure with 7-year renewable contracts.

Guess what that is, Marc? That's soft-money. That's the same thing that medical schools do already.

Do you know what complete lack of job security does to a person? I guess not, because here's what you said about it:This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

Um, yes in theory, but in practice here's what happens instead.

The rich get richer and step on the younger ones trying to make it up the ladder.

The internal politics get so much worse because of these kinds of policies. Just ask around. You have a big med school at Columbia. Ask over there.

Finally, Marc writes: For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.”

Yeah, because it's impossible to tell students that it's a good idea to go to grad school, or that they'll have more than a 1 in 300 chance of getting a faculty position at the end of all of it.


I like that this guy has a conscience, and spoke out in such a public fashion. When I saw this article, there were already >400 comments on it.

Next question: do Op-Ed articles (or blogs) ever really lead to real change? We all wrote tons about Larry Summers, but look where he ended up.

Tell me what you think and how we can put this into action. I think this restructuring education thing could be a good career for me, if the university systems would just hurry up and collapse already.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What she said.

I'd rant about it, but this is so much more clever.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Feeling not good enough.

It's funny how, no matter how much you can rationalize that your manipulative advisor is trying to make you feel inconsequential and replaceable,

and the "colleagues" in your field are all socially awkward, self-centered and weird,

and the grad students in your department are all saying they'd work with you if you had your own lab

you can still feel like a complete and total failure when your western blots stop working and you still don't have those papers published in time to apply for jobs.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Still waiting on that fortune cookie to come true.

Not exactly sure what a shower of good luck looks like (bucket o' shamrocks?) but I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten one.

I'm not very surprised.

Was going to write a post about how this week's Nature had such discouraging articles, but I couldn't remember the exact titles so I went to their website to check them online.

Interesting: the non-subscription, public-accessible version of Nature news is all sunshine and roses. Why am I not very surprised?

Anyway, the hidden articles non-scientists can't see... all our dirty laundry.

All have to do with postdocs in various countries around the world not being able to find work... biotech companies going out of business... how long it's expected to take the bailout money to actually make a difference (they said something like 18 months?)... and other similar good news.

Just talked to an old friend today in Big Pharma who said her International Company laid off 30% of its research workforce.

In other words, she said, if there are 3 people working on her project, they now have to figure out how to do it with 2. And they were barely getting by with 3 people after the last two rounds of layoffs.

Another friend just said yeah, hiring freeze. Not the supposedly frozen kind, but the actually frozen kind.

Meanwhile, a third friend is about to lose her father to two incurable diseases (and bedsores). And these are things we supposedly work on.

This is the stuff we don't tell the citizenry, who are hoping we're going to cure these incurable diseases.

Newsflash: we might get cures for a lot of things a lot faster, if we all were actually employed in our supposedly useful trade. Giving all the money to people who already have jobs and tenure? Maybe not the best idea you ever had, guys.

I'm tempted to try to write to someone with a lot of media clout, like Michael J. Fox, and try to get them interested in publicizing the droves of would-have-been scientists in need of jobs NOT being helped by the so-called Stimulus Package (which I just love the name of, btw).

And how happy we would be to work on, you know, Whatever Disease, if only we could get jobs where we could actually, you know, make a difference.

A few weeks ago I saw Michael J. Fox on the Daily Show and thought, wow, there's a non-scientist who's done more for science than most of the scientists I've ever met put together (and I've met a lot). Why am I not very surprised?

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Origin of the postdoc.

Been doing some research on this. It's not what I thought. It's most likely not what you think, either.

Particularly with regard to women in science and the particular type of glass ceiling I've been hitting lately, this is not a new phenomenon, it's not just me, and it's fundamentally systematic.

And I think I know who's at least partly to blame: women professors of a certain generation, who benefited from those who came before them and didn't make any effort to pay it forward.

Will write more some other time, I'm not done with reading and it will probably take me a while to decide how best to choose points to highlight.

Suffice it to say, I strongly recommend you check out some of the writing by this author.


Amusingly, I got a good fortune cookie yesterday that said today will be good. Fingers crossed- I could use something good right now.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 18, 2009

R1 vs. not so R1


I'm still torn about this question. And no, I've never deleted one of your comments.

I do think the facilities issue is an important one. Many of my frustrations in my postdoc have stemmed from, despite being at a "top" university (not top 5, but top 10 or 20), not having control over access to things I needed.

I think there are a lot of fallacies about "top" places, although I can't say for sure whether being in the top 5 wouldn't actually be 100% better.

But here are some of the misconceptions that I think have made things harder than they should have been at the postdoc level. In other words, the assumptions that don't match reality:

1. Your PI will make sure you have what you need to do your project.

2. Your PI is famous, and therefore has plenty of money.

3. Your PI has plenty of money, manages it wisely, and fairly distributes it among the projects.

4. Top-notch universities have top-notch staff, who are paid well to do a good job helping you with your projects.

5. Your PI is famous, and therefore has plenty of clout and will always been a help to your career, and never steer you wrong.

6. The other PIs in the department respect your PI and you for joining that lab.

7. Broken equipment gets fixed quickly at top-notch universities.

8. Your PI really wants you to succeed, because your success makes your PI look that much better.

So how much of that would apply if I were a junior faculty member where I'm a postdoc now? Try replacing "department chair" for the word "PI" in most of those and you'll see why I'm worried. Obviously #4 and #7 matter more than I'd like, especially at places that depend on shared facilities because no individual PI can afford to have one of everything just for their own lab.

What I know is that I've seen friends who took jobs at various levels of places, who got what they needed to do their work and who is making do with less than I'd want to settle for.

The ones at top schools have basically had no chance to fail, at least in terms of facilities. They got everything they asked for in their startup packages, plus a few other things that the departments didn't have before.

The ones at almost-top schools are already having problems. Not having enough grad students in the incoming classes; postdocs don't want to move there because of the location; university won't give them matching funds when they try to apply for equipment money; not to mention staff being laid off because of funding problems; being shunted in and out of various lab spaces in decrepit old buildings; things being extremely slow already and even slower at schools with no money.

My feeling is that it's a steep curve, and the differences between the various types of schools are huge. I was looking at NIH organizational reports the other day, it's quite amazing to see how much money some places are getting compared to others.

One of my fears is that nobody at the places with one digit less funding is doing the kinds of things I do. So even if I thought I had to way to do it for cheaper, the search committees look at me and say, "There's no way she could do that kind of thing here." And I know this is a legitimate fear, because I've actually had them say that to me.

And it's true. I can barely do it where I am now, and that's with a lot of begging and stealing and nagging my advisors and collaborators to help.... whether my PI just doesn't want to allocate the money, or actually doesn't have any money to spare.

I'm not sure if I'd want to do this as a PI, or that I'd want my future (imaginary) grad students/postdocs to do what I've been doing the last few years.

I think it's a bit inhumane and probably hurts the science more than anyone wants to admit. It hurts me... and it hurts me physically to think how much more I could have done if I had help instead of resistance every step of the way.

I would want to provide better for my students/postdocs than I've had.

It's so ironic, because it was never my intention to do Big Expensive Science.

Here's to being overqualified and underemployed.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 17, 2009

And you wonder why I don't blog more often.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Old vs. new

Been enjoying this discussion over at Drugmonkey.

The gist of it is that a 70-year-old professor suddenly found out he was losing half his funding, and now has to fire several people, including several postdocs.

It's interesting to read the discussion, because some of us came down on the side of he's had long enough and some were very concerned about the trainees and what would happen to them. And several other valid points about how we evaluate productivity, how funding is distributed and maintained via things like endowments, and so on.

All of which got me thinking about something that has seriously colored my impression of old vs. new labs, and the different styles of departments.

I've worked in campus departments vs. medical schools, and these places can be wildly different. I've also worked for tenured professors vs. soft-money professors, and the difference is really quite striking.

Everything is different. The pace of research; the types of people doing it; the lab spaces; the age and functionality of equipment; attitudes of PIs toward mentoring vs. climbing over everyone to get to the top. And so on.

I used to think there was room in science for both kinds, but lately I'm wondering if the people who are just starting their campus labs are going to end up anything like the tenured professors in these departments now?

Will the new crop have a hard time getting tenure? Will tenure exist anymore? If they get tenure, will they eventually be as relaxed and happy as the tenured professors are now?

I mean, these are the happiest people with no retirement savings on the planet. They were already planning to work until they drop, and we know how much "work" most of them are doing. Aside from funding, what do they really need to worry about?

Case in point: for some of these senior professors, their biggest pain in life is having to teach, maybe as little as 1 class a year, but they still whine about it. It makes me wonder if I'm just completely clueless about teaching, or if they really have it so easy that teaching is as bad as their stress ever gets? Maybe both?

I guess I'm thinking about this because, even if I'm not going to be doing science myself, I'm curious to see how these things end up. I know some of these people getting hired now. And they would be my colleagues. So I'm not sure if I'd be missing that much. I'm pretty sure I would have been good at it. But as one friend put it to me a few years ago, I'm not sure the job I thought I wanted even exists anymore.

These people I admired as role models had a completely different time "coming up", as it were. I can't really admire them so much when I think how they all did a maximum of 2 years as a postdoc.

And I tend to block out this one fact: I have as much experience now as they had when they got tenure.

I chewed on that math for a while, and I realized something: maybe I've already had all the "career" I'm going to get. This many years, maybe it's enough?

Labels: , , , ,

Personality splitting.

Literally spent an hour writing a paragraph on a friend's FB page this morning, only to delete it after realizing it sounded too much like YFS and maybe not appropriate for FB.

Meanwhile, things at work are progressing in both potentially good and severely bad ways, leading me to wonder if I'm going to be leaving my current position even sooner than I thought. But I still think that if I leave, I won't be coming back.

Kind of sucks because I'd like to blog about it, but the whole anonymity thing is getting to me lately. I'm going to back to thinking I might compile a book, FSP-style, but also augment it with the details I couldn't blog about from my current position.

Still mulling this all over. Meanwhile, I hope everybody is having a good hump day.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 13, 2009

You go, girl.

It's only Tuesday, and I am already having one of those weeks.

In the midst of my misery, my friends have had nothing but success.

One got a C/N/S paper. She isn't any smarter and doesn't work any harder than any of the rest of us, but she is possibly the nicest person on the planet. So in a karmic sense, I think she deserves it more than most.

Another friend got a K-grant. Same thing there, she's smart and works hard, not more than the rest of us, but she's also a genuinely caring person who makes time to be a real friend.

A third friend submitted a paper that was long overdue, after a record-breaking battle with her PIs. I'm hoping for her sake that after all this drama, it will get in. I've known her since she got the initial results for this paper, and let's just say that "long" is an understatement when I say long overdue.

It's funny how, because they're all such decent people, I'm not even jealous that they're making progress in all the areas where I'm not. In the past, yeah I would have been jealous and it really would have bothered me.

But I'm glad. I'm genuinely happy for them and for science and society, that we've come so far that I can honestly say I think I'm seeing the future of science in these women's faces.

I'm glad to see that, whatever else happens in science (and believe me, you don't want to know and I can't blog about it), there might be hope for a few decent people to make a contribution, be less miserable than I've been, and maybe even make science a better place.

Labels: ,

Snippets of real-life sexism.

These have nothing to do with science per se, except that I think my relative isolation from the real world led me to be surprised by them.

1. Amazon's recommended gifts

Here I was, trying to surf the web on a weekend day for things to help me "relax", and thinking maybe I would like to look in the Home & Gardening section.

Lo and behold, a tab for Mother's Day Gifts appears. Perfect! Except then I realized: there is no such tab under Books, or any other category at Amazon.

So then I was curious (big mistake). This experience was so jarring, it made me seriously consider completely dropping all loyalty to Amazon.

First of all, apparently there are only so many kinds of Moms, but most of them seem more or less the same based on Amazon's range of gift suggestions.

Chef Mom
Entertainer Mom
Decorator Mom
Trendy Mom
Outdoorsy Mom

Note that these categories basically all consist of only one thing: kitchen appliances and dishes.

And my Mom is none of these. I looked under the last tab: "Mom who has everything".

Apparently that kind of Mom also wants- you guessed it- more tools for domestic bliss!

Sigh. According to Amazon, there is no Organized Mom or Busy Mom or Traveling Mom. Mom stays home, and makes sure everyone gets fed. That is her purpose in life.

Then I made the mistake of trying to see if there were also book suggestions for Mother's Day (there aren't). Instead, I found the general gift page, which is arranged by Offensive Stereotypes.

Under Boyfriend/Husband/Dad, you'll find things like:

portable audio
action and adventure movies

Under Girlfriend/Wife, you find:


Need I say more? These are not the kinds of gifts I want!

2. Grocery store checkout guy's off-handed remarks about his wife and women in general

Okay, this was an odd one. The guy bagging my groceries yesterday happens to be deaf. The cashier notice that I needed a cart to get all my stuff out to my car, so he sent the other dude to get one for me. I guess there was a misunderstanding because he had to wave and correct him with sign-language, from across the store.

Pretty cool, I said, you don't have to yell that way.

The cashier turned to me and said, oh yeah, well my wife is deaf. But sometimes it gets us in trouble, you know, I've told her she has to be careful what she says in public.

I said, oh yeah, because people see what she's saying?

He says, oh yeah, you know how catty women can be sometimes. And in this country, lots of women learn sign-language when they're going through that stage where they want to be nurses.

[At this point I'm surprised he can't see the gigantic ?! over my head and steam coming out of my ears. Nurse stage???]

Anyway, he says, it's happened before, my wife will say something, this one time a woman came over and yelled at us. You know how catty women are.

This whole time I'm nodding and wondering why I'm nodding. I mean, yes, women can be catty, but I was kind of wondering why he was saying these things to me.

But I was starving, so I just really wanted to go home and cook dinner for my man.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dear _______,

Dear Friends Who Are Getting Married,

Please realize that if you send me your invitations less than 2 months in advance of the event,

with no other warning that you're planning this,

and it would require me flying long distances,

and you don't respond to my emails asking how badly you want me to come?

I'm probably not going to come or send you a gift.

It's just that simple. I don't think I'm being unreasonable about this. I understand that you're busy, but so am I.




Dear Energy Levels,

I have been battling with you lately. I was sick a couple of months ago and couldn't really get you back up to normal. Then I tried a few new things and I've been starting to feel a little better. But today I just want to stay home and do nothing.

I do not have a meter to measure you, so I have to guess what will help or not help. I don't know if I am tired and need to rest, or if I am just being lazy.

Please just understand that I need you to be up during the day, and off at night. If you could launch me out of bed in the morning, ready to take on the world, that would be great (but I'm not holding my breath).

That is all.



Dear PIs,

When I give you something to read and you don't get back to me, I have to wonder why you are so rude.

Would it fucking kill you to tell me you're

a) busy
b) going to be out of town?

Or if you've already read it and you think it's

a) awesome, doesn't need any further work
b) complete crap


Otherwise I can only assume that you are going to

a) steal my ideas for your grant
b) tell me later that you forgot and never looked at it and can I please print it out.

How long do I wait before I ask? I am tired of having to be a pest.




Dear Laundry,

In the absence of Rosie the Robot, I am still wondering why I have so much of you so often. Why you do not pick yourselves up off the floor and sort yourselves into baskets like any other self-respecting dirty clothing should do?

You make me wonder if I shouldn't throw most of you out and get new clothes that are not so lazy. But that would require shopping, which I hate. I used to love it; now I hate it. Maybe it's because I have no money? And trying on clothes makes me feel fat.

Laundry, I know you need washing and my issues with you are mostly about other things, but I am tired of you staring at me from the pile that never seems to go away.

I love going out of town because it means I don't have to look at your dirty face for at least a few days.

So there. You will miss me and beg me to take care of you when I get back. But I'm not going to promise you're not going in the trash!



Dear Holidays When Everything Is Closed,

You bore me. I do not celebrate you, and you make it so I can't do anything I would normally want to do.

I wish you had less of a stranglehold on our culture, so that we didn't all have to close up shop just to acknowledge your boring passing every year.

Seriously. Go away.



Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Stupid vs. Devious

Lately I have a few (let's say 3) people in my work life who purport to be helping me, but whom I just don't trust.

Or maybe they're really just clueless, because some of the things they do seriously undermine me, fuck up my work, and get in my way.

Not knowing which is seriously hindering my ability to decide what (if anything) I can do about it.

1. The boss

Yes, I've blogged before about some of the PI-postdoc relationship problems.

The boss does things like making the titles of my papers so overstated that the reviewers can't help but say we haven't done what we claimed.

But it's really only the title that's the problem, because that's generally the main thing insisted upon by my PI. I have to pick my battles, and that is one I always lose.

Let me also mention, it has actually come to pass before that my PI deliberately refused to let me publish. Eventually, having failed to come up with sufficient excuses, PI made a lot of idiotic changes to the manuscript and then "suggested" reviewers whom I never would have picked in a million years.

Stupid? Or devious?

In all logic, PI should want to publish my work as much as I do. And yet. There have been so many cases of apparent sabotage... it starts to look like either the PI is a complete idiot (nevermind 20 years of experience on me), or it's all deliberate. I have seen PI stab other people in the back before, so why would I assume it's not the same with me?

2. The student

The student claims to want to help in lab. Wants to learn. Wants lab experience.

And yet.

Student has, of late, been fucking things up. Not taking notes. Not looking at old notes. Mixing things up.

Student is on 2nd chance already; do I give a 3rd?

I'm torn because I know this student does not want a career in research, and I respect that. But let's be honest: this student couldn't have a career in research anyway.

There, I said it. I've had other students. This one would be a no-go as a technician, nevermind in a graduate program where independence would be required.

But I do need an extra set of hands for some simple tasks.

And not much chance of getting a replacement student anytime soon.

What has occurred to me, however, is that the student is the sort who might try to get kicked out, rather than quit.

So, stupid, I think probably yes (both of us).

But devious too? Or just more stupid than I realized?

And before you ask why I hired this student- this was the only one who applied.

3. The collaborator

I have lots of collaborators, and some are trustworthy individuals devoted to doing good work...and some are less so.

This one in particular is, I think, only stupid in an EQ way.

Some of the things this collaborator is doing appear quite devious.

For example, in timing, a devious thing to do is making suggestions in front of our other collaborators that should have been discussed first in private. The ambush tactic. It's awkward, and somewhat rude, and usually in my experience, deliberate. Especially when immediately afterward, instead of realizing their mistake, they make the "What, me?" face, like they didn't do anything wrong.

What I can't figure out is whether it is worth continuing this collaboration, given the added stress of working with this person.

Keeping in mind, I really don't have room in my life for added stress of any kind.

Even worse, some of our other collaborators have said they don't like this person and are considering backing out because of that.

I don't think it's worth sacrificing the whole project, but we'd have to find someone else, which is also a source of stress.

Upon confrontation in private, Collaborator claims to be working on communication skills, and has this great new insight, making progress, etc.

This has happened a couple of times now, although I haven't really brought out the Big Confrontation Guns and said Fix This, or Get Out Now.

Because Collaborator always apologizes.

I just can't tell if this is sincere.

My habit would normally be to cut off all ties with someone like this, because whether it's intentional or not, it's unacceptable and it's jeopardizing the project.

But this is the Grown Up World and we have to learn to work with all kinds of people... right? And maybe I'm just being paranoid?


So... to sum up:

I think the student often pretends to understand, but doesn't. I feel like this is a test for my patience, among other things.

The PI only admits to making a mistake when it's too late, which makes me wonder if it wasn't the intended outcome all along. Otherwise, you might expect a person to learn the next time around that the procedure should be 1. Listen to MsPhD, it's her project. 2. Have nothing to apologize for later.

And I just don't know what to do about the collaborator. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

I don't think I have the energy right now to deal with most of this, but the only non-optional one is the Boss.

So do I tell the others to fuck off? What do you think?

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 05, 2009

It's the little failures every day.

Becca's comment that some people like to tell you

"It should work! It always works!"

on the last post made me think I should respond on the topic in general.

So, here is my feeling on the day-to-day failure we experience regularly as scientists.

Yes, most of the new things we do are not going to work consistently right away.

Sometimes they don't work for the first few tries, and then we tweak it a little and it goes.

Sometimes it works the first time, doesn't work for ten more, and eventually we completely change what we're doing to get it going again.

How we handle it depends on what kind of bench scientist you are. There are different kinds of people doing science (even if diversity could be considered an overstatement for some variables). Seems to me there are at least 4 different kinds of bench scientists.

1. Follows a protocol and it generally works.

These people are good at taking directions, even if they don't always follow them to the letter. They will often 'interpret' the protocol in such a way that makes it work, but they won't tell you that when you get the protocol from them. They might not even realize they're doing it. If you ask them why they do something a certain way or if a certain step is necessary, they sometimes have a rationalization, but they usually don't know.

They don't consciously vary their approaches or generate new ones.

However, they tend to get a lot done, so long as their project involves just cranking out data using mostly established methods.

2. Golden hands.

These people can make anything work. I can't say I've ever worked with one, but I hear they exist. According to legend, they have a deep understanding of fundamental concepts and can apply these to any problem on the fly, generating new methods as they go.

Personally, I'm not sure if I believe in the Myth of Golden Hands. I have certainly worked with some people who were very good at some things, and who knew their limits. If you needed help with something outside their area of expertise, they would tell you who else to ask. I guess this lowers their chances of exposing what they don't know.

I think this is smart- knowing your limits is important, even if people call you a "genius", enough failures will make people question that label.

Alternatively - and I have seen this - they themselves do not actually have The Golden Hands, but their wife (it's always the wife in this scenario) does.

Sometimes people know that it's actually the wife doing all the work, and sometimes they don't. It usually becomes obvious when the wife leaves her post as Supportive Tech to get her own PhD, or stays home with a new baby.

3. Sloppy struggler.

The sloppy struggler does not take good notes, so even if something works, this kind of person has no idea how to reproduce the result. They know how to do a few things, maybe because someone showed them repeatedly and they practiced a lot, but they aren't good at following protocols and they don't understand the basis of what they're doing. If something goes wrong, they're lost. They tend to extremes: either refusing to try any new methods, or trying new things all the time in search of one that works. They sometimes try to ask others for help, becoming leeches and pests.

Most of us go through this as a stage in training, but some never leave it.

If this fails, they refuse to ask anyone anymore and become secretive and paranoid.

Many of these people end up becoming PIs, because what they lack in bench skills they make up for by
a) working harder than anyone else, or at least putting in more face-time at the bench
b) charming the pants off the boss (and anyone else within range).

These are the ones who are later tempted to fake data or lie and say something has been reproduced three times, when it only gave the desired result once.

4. The bedrock.

These people often end up as career techs or lab managers, if not PIs. They keep all the lab protocols, they remember the history of where the techniques came from; what worked and what didn't. They troubleshoot because they don't have golden hands, but they are only willing to struggle for so long before they try to find an expert or co-worker to help them brainstorm other approaches.

They will usually take the time to show you how to do something, but usually not more than once. They will happily answer your questions, so long as you're not rude about it. They will say "I don't know" when they don't know, and nobody accuses them of having golden hands, because we all know they struggle like normal human beings do at the bench.

They often spend large chunks of their careers getting new projects off the ground, although the projects don't always work out and they don't always get credit for it. Without these people, science would not exist.

Eventually they all retire or leave academia to follow their spouse or take care of a dying parent. And then all that lab memory is lost, leaving behind the protocol books. If this person was the lab manager or career tech, they also leave behind a completely helpless PI.


Having defined these categories, then, how do these different types of people deal with failures?

Follows a protocol tends to just repeat and repeat, assuming any problems are their own fault. There's a certain humility and patience here to be admired. But if that fails for long enough, they eventually will be called to the PI or the bedrock, since their sudden lack of consistent productivity will be noticed.

Golden hands, if such people exist, would presumably not need to ask anyone to help them troubleshoot. According to legend, everything they do always works, so they would never find themselves in this scenario? I guess if by some stroke of fate they ran into a problem they couldn't fix immediately, they would ask google or go back to their textbooks and figure it out? Secretly go find someone else who knows better? My guess is that they'd be most likely to drop the project, to avoid looking stupid. They would be most likely to declare that "it doesn't work" and most people would believe them.

The sloppy struggler has a serious case of insecurity, but they deal with failure by banging their heads against the problem. Eventually, if desperation peaks, they might make an effort to get organized; if they do, that usually prompts growing out of this stage. The sloppy struggler is usually his or her own worst enemy at the bench, and everyone else's enemy in the lab. But this often isn't realized until it is too late, particularly if the person has that lethal weapon of charm on their side. If they can get someone else to help them (by choice or by PI mandate), they will often exploit that person into doing their work for them.

The bedrock is used to failure, might have been a sloppy struggler or a protocol-follower in their earlier days. They pack it in for the night, go home and look some things up, maybe ask their friends over a beer what else they should try. And then they try again the next day. Failure is taken in stride; it's part of the job.


Obviously, this is oversimplified for the purposes of analysis. Most of us have some of these characteristics, and deal with failures in more than one way. A lot of it depends on environment.

In the best scenarios, The Sloppy Strugglers would learn how to keep a notebook early on, and learn some humility about how to ask for help while respecting other people's time, and then much of the danger would be averted before it begins.

Follows-a-protocol would be taught to ask questions, forced to understand every step of their protocols and why they're doing it that way. This could build a good habit for the long-term, instead of just blind obedience.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 04, 2009

My setbacks are not the same as your setbacks.

I was reading this month's Scientiae blog carnival about challenges, and noticing that most of the posts are about personal challenges.

When asked about challenges, most women scientists apparently list these kinds of things:

breast cancer
dying parents
crazy colleagues

i.e. personal challenges.

Most of us do NOT list scientific hurdles, i.e. trying to get our experiments to work.

Maybe I misunderstand the point of Scientiae, but I think this really is what bothers women in science. It's not the science part that is hard to handle, it's all our other worries and responsibilities that get in the way of our science.

It's especially interesting to me because most of my women scientist friends (current and former scientists, that is) fall into only two categories.

a) Never had problems with the science itself, only the politics/-isms in science

b) Left science, but never realized until much later that feeling discouraged and not good enough at science was mostly because of the politics/-isms

From what I can tell, the main factor in determining which of these two categories women fall into is what kinds of experiences they had prior to starting graduate school.

Those of us who fell into category (a) had already experienced some -isms and/or already had a very strong habit of standing up for ourselves as equals.

Those who fell into category (b) came from families where women had more traditional roles, and/or attended science-heavy schools where women were in the vast minority.

(The unconscious message they got from this opportunity was that women don't do science.)

In contrast, when I ask my guy scientist friends (current and former scientists) about their challenges, they say:

exploitative boss
can't decide what to work on
experiments are not working
about to run out of funding
got scooped on a competitive project

and very rarely, they might say:

have to find a better-paying job to support the wife & kids
visa running out

But in general, they are very open about struggling with the science.

Now, there are a few possible ways to interpret these answers.

1. Guys actually are not that good at science. (Take that, Larry Summers!)

2. Guys have fewer other responsibilities and generally don't multi-task their worrying, so they effectively ignore the challenges in their personal lives.

3. Guys do worry about these other things, but they don't talk about it the way women do.

But I submit the possibility that, while everyone has setbacks, they are perceived differently.

For example.

When a man does a challenging project, it's called "groundbreaking."

Not so long ago, I was talking about some of the challenges in my project, and a young male professor told me he thought my project sounded "too hard".

I was totally baffled by this, because I was not complaining or saying that we couldn't figure out ways around these challenging issues.

In fact, I was talking about the solutions I came up with, as examples of how satisfying problem-solving can be, and how cool the answers were: i.e., things I am really proud of accomplishing at work.

... Until I realized he himself had chosen something technically easy for his own research.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately since I just had a similar conversation with another "peer" who is starting a faculty position this year. Arguably, his project is not novel at all. And yet, he has a job.

And so I debate if/how to sell myself on the job market. On the one hand, theoretically it's good to do something novel. It's better for science and better for society. On the other hand, it's not good for your job prospects if your project is seen as too risky, or if you as a candidate are perceived as unproven.

My perception is that there are a very few women who somehow slip through the "system", working on things that are extremely novel and extremely unproven. When asked, they invariably say they have never experienced any kind of sexism.

But I don't know if that's true, and if so, I don't understand how they do it.

For the rest of us, our abilities are too often met with a particularly sexist kind of skeptic-ism.

So the rest of us strategize. We say:

1. I will do many more experiments to prove my science is not too risky, and then they will see me as a real candidate.

2. I will change how I am perceived.

You can guess, then, why women often end up choosing the #1 strategy. We play to our strengths.

And so we end up finding the #2 problem the most challenging. Science is easy. It's everything else that makes it so hard.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 03, 2009

Work less to save jobs?

So last night I watched the end of ER, and thought about how young I was when it first started and I wanted to go to med school.

That show was one of the reasons I decided not to go to med school. It was also one of the things that fed my fear of ever being pregnant (the famous Love's Labor Lost episode).

Really, a landmark of my growing-up time, although I had never really watched it religiously every week since the early days.

And then the news was on, and I watched some of that because the Daily Show wasn't funny.

Surprisingly, the news was funny. Are they seriously talking about cutting our work-week to 35 hours and having month-long vacations in the US? Was this a day-after-April-fool's joke? We're becoming France?

Things have gone kinda crazy in this country. It would certainly help to have (more) national vacation days. This seemed unbelievably radical, something only a young White House could come up with.

Especially if the month-off thing were actually recognized in science!


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fool's Day

As if part of a planned joke, today my university announced a training session on how to rock your academic job interviews. Space is limited! the ad said. Call now to reserve your spot!

When I called to reserve my spot, they said it was for grad students only, and postdocs are not allowed because the class is paid for by student fees.

In other news, I saw something about how the stimulus package is asking for grant applications from schools who need money to re-start their interrupted (un-funded) faculty searches. I don't know if that was also an April 1st joke, but at any rate by the time those get funded, it will probably be too late the help the postdocs whose funding is running out NOW.

Happy April 1st, everybody. Our career choice can only be laughed about, it's so absurdly fucked up.

Labels: , ,