Thursday, June 25, 2009

Response to several comments on last post

yolio- That's exactly the point of this post. NOBODY told me that you should choose your adviser rather than your research topic! It's actually kind of irrational, don't you think?

Perhaps relevant to our readers- Who told you? A faculty member? Friend from school? Friend of the family?

Anon- What if you're not working on XYZ and you have no interest in XYZ but the only "good" advisers work on XYZ? Might I be just as well off being bored making bagels as working on XYZ if I don't give a shit about it?

I think the big picture is that many people are NOT doing interesting science! Most people are doing "me too" science! Or "fund me please I'll do whatever is in style!" science!

And I really find disgusting the notion that I should have to work on something else just because the climate is foul and the mentoring missing in my field.

I mean, just think about that for a moment.

To me, this is the tragedy. Science could be making SO MUCH MORE PROGRESS if it weren't so supremely fucked up. We could have cured any number of diseases if it weren't for this "I gotta protect myself by finding a friendly mentor" limit on choosing a research topic, and the assumption that it's not just the ONLY but the "best" way to become a scientist. It may be nothing more than the best way to get a degree in how to do irrelevant science, as far as I can tell!

It's like that parable about the person who drops their keys on a dark street, but they keep looking around under the lamp. When someone asks why they're looking near the lamp they say, "But it's so dark where I actually dropped them!"

labrat- It has been suggested to me repeatedly that I should consider working for free. PIs already know it can be gotten under the right circumstances from desperate people.

It would be one thing if my adviser were a good mentor who had really tried to help me up to this point and failed due to outside circumstances and if I knew it would be temporary and I were guaranteed to get a job after a short period of volunteering. Unfortunately, that is NOT the case.

Anon @4:28 said:
Postdocs do rotations, but they are one or two years long. That's the beauty of a post-doc: since you already have your degree, if the situation sucks, you can walk away.

This is LUDICROUS. And perhaps most importantly, while it may be kind of true, apparently nobody has told any of the funding agencies. If you want to get, or already have a fellowship, you CANNOT do this.

And who the hell goes into their postdoc assuming they will switch at least twice before they find the right one? WTF is that?

But I totally agree about the "didn't get tenure" advisor generally being the one who actually was a good mentor.

Toni- I think the point is that most of us have tried lowering our expectations, but sometimes you can end up selling yourself short and getting stuck (see case in point: this blog).

But I agree that in the current climate, even more people are feeling pressured to take really shitty situations they would never have considered otherwise.

Anon- @ 9:29- thanks, will check out those links on mentoring.

Anon @12:08 wrote:
I agree that the chances of having an advisor and lab that meets all the ideal criteria are extremely slim. But is it necessary for all those criteria to be fulfilled in order to be successful? I think as long as a couple of those criteria are met, then surely things should be OK?

That's what I thought, but look where it got me!

I think the point is, you can't have everything. You might muddle through and publish a paper or a few, even if the mentoring is lacking.

But my point is that at the endgame, if the critical things are missing, you also CAN'T GET AN ACADEMIC JOB.

The "system" as it currently exists assumes that everyone behaves ideally (like an oversimplified college-level physics problem). Unfortunately, very few people even try to be the best mentors they can be.

And since we're all human, very few actually succeed at being the ideal mentor even when they have good intentions.

We need to deliberately design a system where mentoring is a bonus, not a pre-requisite. Perhaps if we had more objective criteria, bidirectionally anonymous review, and a variety of other improvements, this is something we could actually do.

The current half-assedness that passes for being systematic is wasting a lot of talent, effort, and taxpayer money. Not to mention time for people who are sick and need our help.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How to fail again

I was talking to a friend of mine this week about the disappointment of not making progress with therapy. She said she finally, after several years, stopped choosing the wrong kind of guy. And how she finally realized that she wasn't just making mistakes, she was seeking out and attaching onto things that were bad for her.

I was saying how part of what my therapist wanted me to do was stop blaming myself for my current predicament, since that kind of thinking obviously worsens depression. However, there's a logical paradox when you're also telling me, if I understand it correctly, that according to this kind of psychology, I got myself into this situation by choosing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

So of course I've been over and over and over my decisions, obviously, trying to figure out what I could have done differently, knowing what I know now. Trying to hash out for myself, what were my motivations at the time, did I really do everything I could have done given the circumstances, etc.

1. Was I presented with better options that I passed up?

Not really, no, I don't think so.

2. Could I have waited longer and looked around more?

Sure, I guess so. You usually can look harder if you can afford the time.

3. Would that have made much difference in where I ended up?

Maybe. But the statistics being somewhat against me, I think I probably would have many of the same problems no matter what lab I joined.

When I said this, my friend and I talked some about the whole "where did we go wrong?" thing and the improbability of finding a good lab. And I had to laugh my ass off at something she said. I think she'll forgive me for posting it here (although I'm not sure if she even reads this blog).

So we were saying how, if you go into grad school with even a vague idea of what you want to work on (let's say you want to research Cheeseburgers), you're already limiting yourself tremendously. So here is what she said (more or less):

First, you apply to a bunch of schools and maybe you get some offers so you have some choice about where you live, etc. and you pick one based on how the interview went.

By picking one school, you've just limited yourself to X number (let's say a few hundred or at most a couple thousand at a huge school) possible science labs on that campus.

Of those advisers, let's say only 50 or at most a few hundred are in your Graduate Program and have space in their labs or whatever.

Then, of those in your Graduate Program, only about 5 of them work on anything related to what you want to do with Cheeseburgers.

And, of those 5:

1 is completely crazy
1 just found out they won't get tenure and they're leaving
1 will lose their funding in two years and one day they'll suddenly say they can't pay you

and the other two were married, but they're getting divorced, and the guy is sleeping with his postdoc (and they'll all three be embroiled in the lawsuit over child custody for the next several years)

Granted, she was joking, but it was funny because it's SO TRUE in academia that it's really hard to find a good "mentor" who is also not going through a personal or professional crisis of some kind.

As graduate students and postdocs, we're not supposed to have any ideas, much less the desire or ability to work on them (and certainly not the resources!). But nobody tells you, as much as they want you to succeed, that it's almost statistically impossible to find someone who is smart enough, sane enough, funded enough, and supportive enough to really be a good mentor.... oh yeah and then there's all that stuff about personalities meshing and biases and whatever else that means even if you do find someone who isn't a wreck, you might not really mesh.

So the chances that you'll find an amazing mentor who not only lets you think and work on your own ideas and guides you but doesn't squelch you and ALSO likes you enough to really promote you and not just take credit for your work but actually give you credit and support?

Very slim chances indeed.

Oh yeah, and you don't only have to do this once. You have to do it, in most cases, at least twice. Once as a grad student, and at least once as a postdoc.

Yeah, good luck with that. Roll the dice.

So it was kind of reassuring to hear my friend do this math out loud in such a logical, funny and accurate way. It made me think a little less of it is really about choices and blame. It's just a totally illogical statistical game.

But having already thought about Cheeseburgers and the Burger Kings who run my field, I had already concluded that one source of my problems has been the field that I chose.

Having said that, I'm still not really interested in switching fields, at least not for a nonscientific reason. That just seems completely spineless and stupid to me, considering that I'm still interested in what I work on.

Nor am I entirely convinced that any of the other fields I am peripherally interested in wouldn't be just as bad (or worse) once I spent enough time there to know what's really going on.

And I'm not convinced, no matter how simple it might sound as a solution, that quitting science would magically prevent me from ever getting into these kinds of situations again.

That's the psychology way of looking at it, anyway. According to that model, I am choosing my own hell, basically, even if I'm doing it unconsciously, because it feels familiar after growing up in a totally dysfunctional household and blah blah blah.

I'm just not sure I buy it. I don't know if I was "meant" to be a scientist, or whatever. But I think it was something I chose for perfectly valid reasons. I just don't see why I should be getting blamed for the sad fact that science as a career is mightily fucked up. Especially when nobody tells you that.

Nor do I see why nobody's doing a single fucking thing* about it.

*And no, blogging does not count.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

I'm not real, but I'm still dangerous

Mechanical Synthetic Person Hardwired for Destruction

Get Your Cyborg Name


Saturday, June 20, 2009

minor detail

Yesterday I got "young lady"'-ed.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Relative vs. Absolute

One of the analysis programs I use gives you choices. At one point when you're choosing how to display your data, the choices basically come down to the title of this post. It doesn't change the result, just the scale and portability of the results.


Yes, my therapist means to help me. Yes, my advisor may (or may not) have (at least some) good intentions, too. Yes, the same could be said about my parents, who could also be said to have screwed up any number of things about my personality and ability to function in adult life.

This week I've been thinking again about how, while intentions are nice, it doesn't really matter if the outcome is still fatally flawed.

Yes, it's nice to have someone on your side. But if that person is steering you wrong, and you're attaching to them only for the sake of having something to hold onto, that's not really going to help you make any progress.

If that person continually lets you down, whether through selfishness or a lack of appropriate expertise, would you keep on trying? If this is your partner, wouldn't you think hard about whether to continue the relationship? If it were your student, wouldn't you think hard about how many chances to give them? If this is your advisor, wouldn't you want to leave the lab?

At some point, good intentions are not enough.

And maybe not even relevant. Doesn't the bad guy usually think he's doing the right thing? Anybody see Watchmen?


I really believe that truth in research is relative. Because whatever we think is true now, it's probably only partly right, and years from now someone with better tools and more insight will realize that we were almost always at least partly wrong.

And yet, some things are absolute. Maybe only hindsight has this property: knowing what you know now, sometimes there was one answer better than the other. But you didn't know that then.

Somehow I find this concept easier to accept in research than in real life. Maybe because it's more clear to me how we couldn't have known. In research I read everything I can; I review my data as much as I can; I run all the analyses I can think of and that the software can manage.

In real life, I often find myself wondering if I could just have read the right books or talked to the right people, would I have known sooner what I know now? Because most of this is probably not new, not the way cutting-edge research is new. I'm sure most of my struggles in life and philosophy are old news. What I'm doing in life really is re-search.

So while intentions can only be relative, outcomes can be absolute.


At some point, you have to look at the data and say, is this working well enough to justify the time and cost?

I do this almost every day in research. I'm not sure everyone does- there must be a few labs with so much money, that it would be possible to get your PhD and sail through your postdoc never realizing how expensive it all is until you go to write your own R01.

But that isn't how my career has been. I'm always asking, usually before I even do a pilot run, can I afford this even if it does work? What will I do if it's working and I need to buy more and we can't afford that? How much information can I get if this is all I get to do?

It is all worth it?

It's really hard to work this way. It's like having a phobia of commitment. As a serial monogamist, I can tell you it's really a strain when your natural inclination is to throw yourself all in, but you know it's too risky because you'll just be heartbroken when it ends.

On the other hand, you have to start everything with a relatively open mind. There is no absolute intention, because we're all biased whether we mean to be or not.

So when we say "have an open mind' in science, we mean that you try to be objective, whether that means quenching your optimism or your pessimism, sometimes it depends on the person and the day of the experiment. Maybe you can't suppress your gut feeling, but you also know from (relative) experience, we're all wrong about 50% of the time. So you get used to acknowledging your fears and trying anyway. Some people call that brave.


Science has taught me a lot of things (so far?).

The length of diligence is always longer than you think.

Courage to try even when you think you'll fail again and again; even when you have failed.

Persistence doesn't even begin to cover how many times you have to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Patience with yourself can be harder than any other kind of patience. Patience with experiments can be easier than patience with other people or with circumstances.

Anger can be empowering.

Silence can raise your stock, but it isn't always powerful. Sometimes it's just passive.

Some people define truth from all angles.

Some people define truth like this:

if you just say it this way, it's technically true, and everyone will be happier.

Some people define truth as outcomes; some define it as implications.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In which my subconscious betrays me

Had a pretty vivid dream where I was setting up my own lab.

It was a mostly-empty room. It wasn't that big. It was basically a blank slate. White walls, gray blinds on the windows. It had a door. I was starting to decide where things would go.

And I was overjoyed. I did not care that the room wasn't that big, or what the weather was like outside. I was just so happy to have the chance to see what it would be like to do it my own way, starting from scratch.

I was really happy when I woke up, like it had actually happened. Took me a few minutes to realize it was a dream, but then I was just grateful to my imagination for having let me experience that so vividly.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bad Computer

I am having a Bad Computer Weekend. It goes something like this:

Got up (Saturday morning), worked on Laptop.

Went to lab (Saturday afternoon), worked on Desktop.

Would have strangled Desktop if Desktop were a person.

Came home, looked through some old posts on Blogger until Blogger crashed (no kidding).

Decided to write this post off-line and post it afterwards (afterwords).


I had a revelation this morning about how one of the students I've been working with is like a computer. He has lots of smarts and ability, but he needs really explicit instructions, and has no common sense. It has been a real challenge for me to spell things out sufficiently for him to understand what I mean.

I was thinking about how this is one of the best and hardest parts of my job: communicating with computers (and students who could be mistaken for computers).

I like this part of my job because it is constantly challenging. I have to figure out what my natural intuition is saying to me and then translate it into something a computer (or student) can understand. This is one of the few areas of my job where I really have to think.

Perhaps even more challenging is the added confusion of having to switch gears and talk to people who do NOT think like computers, i.e. who are sometimes illogical, and stubbornly fixated on past assumptions despite evidence to the contrary. Who try to rationalize away obvious exceptions that prove the rule is wrong, instead of admitting that exceptions by definition disprove the rule.

In many ways, talking to a computer is easier. For instance, there are rarely any assumptions being made. There is no information in there unless you put it there. Usually, there are rules, and they are applied consistently. Exceptions are noted, often loudly.

And yet, the hard part for me is figuring out which rules are relevant, and which will make things harder; what information to put in, and how to tell the computer to ignore the irrelevant parts.

And these are the same things I find difficult in my career. Which rules to break; what information to share; how to get people to look past their own biases and see my work for the awesome hotness that it is.


In the middle of wanting-to-strangle-the-Desktop, I had another revelation relating to my use of computers. I read recently in the AWIS magazine that apparently it is even harder for women in "interdisciplinary areas".

When I read that, I thought, "Huh. I wonder what 'interdisciplinary' means."

In the middle of my computer conundrum today, I realized that what I've been doing is exactly what that means.

And that yes, this is probably part of why I've had such a hard time trying to do Science While Female.

Stupid me, I thought I was just doing Science.

It never once crossed my mind that I was doing Interdisciplinary Science While Female- the most difficult of all!

According to the current AWIS President, I should have planned ahead when I decided that was what I wanted to do.

I thought about this all week and it made me really mad the more I thought about it. Because no matter how much we think we have Planned Ahead, e.g. for our Careers, planning ahead is only of limited utility for Science.

Those of you working at the bench know what I mean. Things don't always work as planned. Or at all. We often have to change direction; find collaborators to help us; try new methods that have never been tried. This is often not included in The Plan (aka the Funded Version of the Grant).

Projects don't always go where we think they'll go. And there are always forks in the road. Sometimes the two roads that diverge in the wood are BOTH covered with thorny, hairy plants that will eat you alive. But you have to pick one, or get airlifted the hell outta there.

Without real mentoring, let me tell you that you can't really hitchike a helicopter out of the middle of the data jungle. I've tried.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that such a rescue force really exists. I really do think that there are people who can give you advice on your career; and people who can give you advice on your science; and rarely the twain shall meet, much less be the same person.

So I've been thinking about this a lot, partly because I read this article and saw more of the usual "blame the victims who are already stuck" party line.

In other words, it's not the fault of the fucked-up "System" of doing Science that things are tough on the front lines. Instead, as usual it must be the postdoc's fault for not thinking ahead.


Because let's be honest, nobody sees these things coming. Most researchers will tell you all their projects turned out to be harder than they thought when they started, NOT easier. If we all worried too much about how hard things would be, we'd never get started on anything. Instead, we try to make it all as easy as we possibly can, at least insofar as we can see what's coming.

So while the article concludes that yes, women might be particularly suited to interdisciplinary work, apparently our careers are at even greater risk when we try to do it.

I guess in that sense I am too much like a computer myself. Nobody input this information ahead of time. I could only go on the information I was given.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Can't seem to put together an idea for a post. Have lots of wispy thoughts that get away... can't seem to smush them together to make one big one worth writing about.

Lots of unbloggable little tidbits lately. Lots of personal stuff that I have realized, having made the mistake before, that I don't really want input on from the blogosphere.

Speaking of input, I will write a little about that, since I am a little curious about what other bloggers think about this issue.

Been reading a book by a writer who talks about how she never reads reviews of her work, doesn't want to know that people write book reports on her novels, doesn't want to know what they think because she just writes for herself.

Got me thinking about the good and bad of having comments contantly coming in on one's writing, as happens on blogs.

I guess this writer would not like to have a blog.

But it does make me think again about the good and bad of having constant input on the main writing outlet that I use regularly (aside from my private diary, which rarely contains any great revelations, though sometimes amusing gossip).

Writing is, in many ways, a form of breathing for me. Sometimes worrying about being anonymous and/or criticized for what I write here makes me feel, well, really stifled and self-censoring. And I get more than enough of that in lab, thank you very much.

Which isn't to say that I never have anything to write about that I want other people to read. I do, pretty frequently, want to write for the express purpose of communicating with the vast faceless audience of desperate, often clueless students considering science as a career. To say what I wish I had known when I was their age; what no one else will say; what most don't really believe could possibly be happening, but it does happen. To be a vocal witness to the atrocities. To document what happens to me, and what I see happening all around me.

It didn't start out that way. I really wanted to write about how cool it is to be a scientist. But somewhere along the way that got lost in all the awful things that have happened to me while I was trying to do science. What is that saying? Life is what happens while you're making other plans?

Anyway since I'm of two minds about the good and bad of blogging, for others vs. for myself, I guess I'll try to stop writing myself around in circles on this topic. There is definitely something existentially strange about writing a post and then getting almost instant feedback.

Usually, I love what I wrote and it feels great to write it and re-read it.

But sometimes, no one else likes it and I get a deluge of angry comments. Sometimes that bothers me for days.

Other times I don't care what you say, any of you, and I just delete the annoying ones and go on with my day. Sometimes I laugh a little as I do that and wish that I could do the same thing when people in real life criticize me, especially when they do it anonymously. Wouldn't it be nice to have a delete key for paper and grant reviews?

Other times I just sort of toss something off and then get lots of praise for saying how many of us feel, apparently, although I was really just writing what I was thinking and not really worrying how it would read (at least, not too much- I've been blogging long enough that I always think about who is reading this).

And then sometimes I'm just really glad that somebody appreciated it, because it feels like a freebie, a nice little bonus for doing something I wanted to do anyway. Sort of how I wish scientific publishing would be, but it never has been that way for me.

And maybe the thing that worries me is whether blogging regularly is actually stopping me from doing other kinds of more creative (read: also potentially more therapeutic) writing, because there's only so much time in a day and even being very unfocused, I can only do so many things at once.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Oh, so that's what it's called!

Had a conversation with a new postdoc in my lab who is trying to publish some leftover papers from her PhD work.

I guess this is a pretty common predicament nowadays, to be a postdoc who has actually never been through the experience of scientific publishing.

There are several things that are really baffling about the "process".

1. Formatting

This used to make sense in the days of yore printing, but it makes less and less sense as most of us get our journals online.

2. Anonymous reviews

They asked for WHAT??!! Often leads to the question of who is really your peer and what the hell they are doing writing reviews.

3. Editor-speak

As in, when the response is actually favorable but it sounds like it's not. Or, as is more often the case these days, the response reads as if they really didn't understand what was written in the reviews.

4. Reject means resubmit

Even when a paper is soundly rejected, the tradition is fast becoming to resubmit anyway, and browbeat the editor into sending the paper back out.

5. How long this all takes

So let me get this straight, she said. It's going to take a month or two to get the reviews back? What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Take out my crystal ball and try to guess what they'll ask for?

6. How little time you have to address the reviews

Most journals give you 2 months to do any and all experiments, but you're supposed to know that you can negotiate for more (even though it's not at all clear that this is negotiable if you read the journal websites).

7. How political it all is

Whether it's better to have presented the work in public first very close to when it will be submitted; or not at all. Whose names are on the paper; whether the reviewers you suggest will be the ones the editor uses; whether people with a conflict of interest will recuse themselves (no, they won't!).

8. Who's really going to get the credit when it comes out

Your PI. Whether s/he had anything to do with any of it or not.


In related news, this week I learned there is a term for what has been going on that is ruining my field. Apparently Richard Feynman called it Cargo cult and I think the description on wikipedia is totally accurate. Since I saw this on a blog but now can't remember where, apologies and thanks to the person who wrote about it.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009

For the ones who leave.

I've been thinking about disillusionment of various kinds.

Why some people realize they just don't like science enough. Why girls decide not to major in math even though they got straight A's in the subject up through high school and it always came naturally to them. These kinds of things.

Every time I've quit something by choice, it was because I felt I just couldn't make myself fit in. I was not welcome, and nothing I could do or say would change that. No matter how much I wanted to do what I was doing, I knew I would have to give it up.

Sometimes these things were obvious, like being physically incapable of throwing a basketball. Okay. I figured that out pretty early on, and I was never invested in becoming a basketball star. (Besides, I grew up before the WNBA, so it wasn't like I had any role models until it was way too late.)

But with most other things, I reached a tipping point. Something just broke.

My favorite teacher moved away, and my confidence in the subject disappeared like a cloud on a windy day. Poof!

The other kids were not like me, and I felt isolated and fell behind in class when we had to work in groups. That subject, which was my favorite and best, became my least favorite class and a source of constant stress.

Lately I feel like something in the science part of me just broke and I can't put it back.

What broke is the delicate cocoon that let me pretend it didn't matter that I'm a Female Scientist, revealing a secret that I kind of forgot: I have been a Female Scientist all along.

Cocoon is actually a good metaphor in this case, because I think for a lot of us the dream is that we'll wake up one day and just be Scientist, with no qualifying label attached.

And then something inside me just broke when I realized that's NEVER going to happen.

Intellectually, I've always known this. But I'm not sure I really understood what it entails. There's so much baggage that goes along with this, and much of it on a daily basis.

I've been blogging all this time trying to come to terms with this as a major setback that has, in ways large and small, adversely affected my career and my relationship to science.

I'm one of those people, for better or worse, who just doesn't want to see things go on as they are when they're clearly not working very well. Science is not working well for me because of the way I've been treated. And that has been colored, ever since grad school, by the stain of sexism.

For a long time I've tried to tell myself I didn't really experience much sexism in grad school, and compared to being a postdoc that's basically true. But the truth is, none of my work was judged as fairly in grad school as it would have been otherwise.

Even my thesis adviser, whom I would never say was outright sexist, had some unconscious bias that caused undue distrust of my results, which meant I had to do additional experiments where I wouldn't have otherwise. It meant I had fewer papers, and my one "really good" paper was sent to lower-tier journals than it would have been if I had a supportive mentor who appreciated the importance and quality of what I was doing.

I know this because my one "really good" paper is pretty well-cited, and because very similar work from other labs made it into Big Journal. But mine wasn't even submitted there, so I'll never know if I really had a shot. Maybe it was just too political, but I would have liked to be allowed to try.

And it's hard not to realize, when you really stop to think about it, how much of a difference that one paper being in Big Journal would have made, every step of the way. For fellowships. For the papers that came later. For jobs now.

In my field, we don't publish a lot of little papers, we publish big ones every few years. So if your big paper doesn't go into A Pretty Big Journal, you've just wasted not just some time, but usually several years. Which is, in the life of a grad student or postdoc, pretty much all there is. And biologically speaking, those are usually your best years. Your hot shoe-wearing years.

This week I found out that yet another grad student in my building dropped out. She was there for a long time, and the explanation was that she "just didn't like it enough". But I saw this girl working, and she worked hard enough for me to know that she couldn't have hated it that much. People who hate science just don't show up. Or they show up and surf the web. She was not one of those.

But seeing this happen again and again and again, and always quietly like this, makes me angry and sad. Because I know she was the only girl in her lab. And nobody in that lab was encouraging her.

The thing about being a minority is, even if nobody is actively out to get you, you know you're a minority. You know it all the time.

Instead of being told you suck, you're being shown. Every day. How different you are, and not in a good way.

You don't have to be a genius to see how the guy next to you gets all the favors and pats on the back, while you have to beg for scraps.

You stretch yourself, you literally bend over backwards, but eventually something breaks.

And it really is like a tree falling in the forest, because nobody is ever there to hear it.

This post is for the ones who leave.

You're braver than me.

Labels: , , , ,

Response to comments on response to comments.

This is fun recursive... well anyway.

Alicia- Absolutely there are other problems besides the boys' club, but there are problems like that in most jobs, aren't there? And yet, most of my friends in other careers are shocked at how sexist science is. I was just talking to another person the other day who was having trouble wrapping their head around the idea that, while the experiments are hard already, there's all this other crap on top. Science has a reputation for being elite, but sexism and harassment are the stuff of other jobs, the kind of thing you see in movies like North Country. So it's hard for people to imagine that these things go on in science too.

Anon 2:30 said: Is this the problem, or is it academics? If the problem is self-sabotage, then that will follow you (I have a passing familiarity...). If it's the academics/science/the system of doing the science, then perhaps getting out and do something that doesn't make you miserable makes sense.

Does walking away from academia freak you out because it's losing who you are, or because the alternatives are scary? I just did this "exercise" recently in a fit of pique; the message clearly was I'd be losing an integral part of who I am if I walked away.

I guess that's the point. I really suspect it will follow me even if I left science.

Would I be losing who I am. Well yeah I guess it has become integral, even if it wasn't before. And yes the alternatives are scary. I think in some ways even if I stopped doing science, I would never stop thinking the way I think now, which is as a scientist. But I don't know.

Anon 4:43 said: Don't be hard on yourself for not having had a crystal ball.

Thanks. This is something I am trying to learn, how to not be kicking myself constantly. Especially with comments like the one above yours.


Thanks for the advice. I took some personality tests and was really amused at the results. Scientist and Professor are listed as among the handful of most common preferred jobs for someone of my Type, but it also did a great job of profiling some of my problematic tendencies, like trying to please other people before myself (my parents, my advisers). Some of the other options made more sense to me than others (writer). I am still thinking about what this means. It does make me feel a little better about my choices thus far, or the other options I might choose instead, even if it's just a statistical probability that I'm not completely on the wrong track.


I guess one of the things I expected was to have someone ask me questions in different ways... like my best friend used to do. The truth is, I'm sort of trying to replace her with therapy, which is ridiculous. But I'm so broken-hearted at how we've grown apart, I don't know what else to do. She's the one who got me through grad school, and now I just feel completely adrift, not having anyone like her to talk to.

Anon 3:59 AM,

Yeah, I guess if I really were absolutely miserable I would want to do that. Sometimes I am. Other times I get into what I'm doing and think, "You know, I really like this job." Starting something new really requires a lot of energy and commitment. I don't think a career counselor can give me that if I don't have it.

Anon 9:19,

You're suggesting on the one hand that there isn't a ladder and it's not due to experience, but then you compare it to quantum tunneling and "crashing through" by the number of times you crash into the barrier.

I liked the suggestion that there is no ladder, and I think that's partly true. But to imply that there's no information to convey, kind of makes no sense if as you say, it's due to banging your head against the wall enough times to eventually break through the "barrier"- which in many ways sounds a lot like the glass ceiling to me.

I like that your analogy includes the statistical component, that's very apt. But if nothing else, there should be something learned (at least the way I think about the world and life in general) from each and every bang on the head you receive.

One of the things that infuriates me sometimes about scientists is that we should be the MOST observant, the most thoughtful people. And sometimes we're the least, or at least the least able to communicate what we see.

I've been thinking a lot about our culture of secrecy. I had a long conversation with a friend the other day about sexism and how part of the problem is that most people don't really know how prevalent it is. They think it went away in the 60s with the miniskirts. But part of the reason everyone thinks that is because we act like it's uncouth to talk about the things that happen to us. And we do that because we're still always blaming the victims, saying she asked for it by the way she dresses or how she talks. And that's a bunch of bullshit.

The same is true for unethical shit in science. Most people do NOT want to talk about it in the open, it's gossipy water cooler talk that nobody wants to confirm or condemn, even when we should.

So I guess that's my complaint about the "ladder" business. Maybe there's not a ladder per se, but we have a hypothesis that there's a ladder and we should be willing to share our observations that support what the ladder might look like.


Yes, I did look into my alma mater's career site, but it wasn't very helpful. Most of the events they have that would be very useful are held near the school, which is not near where I live now. Some of the online resources are good, but they're mostly geared toward positions for people with a bachelor's degree, or people looking for their very first job straight out of college.

And most of them are making more money than me! Ha!

Re: the deadline idea, it just doesn't work for me. I keep setting deadlines and they keep getting pushed back. And in a way I'm glad for that, I guess, in the sense that this year I've finally made some noticeable progress where I hadn't before. If I had quit last year, I would have missed all of that.

I guess I hope when I'm really done, I'll know. I read this article by Ruth Ley this week in Science, and while I have a LOT of issues with using her as an example of success (followed her husband to do a second postdoc and thinks she's broken a lot of rules? HA!), one of the things she wrote that really rang true for me was this part:

This led to nagging self-doubt: Did I even want a tenure-track job? Given how much time I spent turning over that question in my mind and boring the people around me with my internal debate, I should have realized that I really did want it.

By that measure, given how much time, yes of course I really did want it. Moving on to not wanting it, however, vs. not being able to have it, is harder and taking longer than I thought. I guess if I got kicked out tomorrow, I would be fine. If I got kicked out in six months, is that any better or worse? I don't know. But my days are numbered, whether I want that or not. At the moment I'm just trying to do what Gnarls Barkley says, moving on, and I'm prepared to go it alone.

scicurious said: it was a HUGE comfort just to know that they were there

Absolutely. Just looking into other kinds of positions makes me feel less trapped and less out-on-a-dead-end-limb, which is really important right now for my state of mind. Great advice to anyone who is in the same boat- know what your options really are before you convince yourself you don't have any.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, June 01, 2009

Response to comments on last post

Thanks to Blogger's idiocy, I'm not even going to try to reply in the comment box.

Anon 3:03,

Actually, I started therapy hoping it would help me figure out how not to sabotage myself with my tendency to get too depressed to function. My therapist rejected that as a concept from the outset, but I actually kind of think she was wrong about that.

re: being poor, I know because my therapist sometimes gives examples from her own life, and she hasn't for this. I also know a bit about how her business works and I'm pretty sure she's doing just fine.


Ha. Yeah, my last session was like she was trying to mirror my feelings by repeating back to me basically exactly what I was saying, and I was saying, "YES, NOW TELL ME SOMETHING I DIDN'T ALREADY KNOW."

I don't think I need someone to help me narrate.

Lou- I think she is trying to listen, but yeah I think that is part of the problem. And I did tell her that I don't feel completely heard.

Alicia- Great analogy. I do think that's part of the problem, the race-car mentality is just so not me.

But don't you worry that it's mostly because it's such a boys' club? Isn't that infuriating?

Anon 7:18- Great point about how even the good parts pass.

I have felt like you describe, "Oh yes I do have skills" but I think the problem for me is that I feel like every time I start working with new people they assume I am an idiot and consistently undervalue my work for a long time.

Every time it is an uphill battle to get them to look past my appearance as female, etc. and pay attention to what I am SAYING and DOING and just LOOK AT MY DATA.

Eventually they (usually) come around, but in the process I have been burning the candle at both ends. One end is doing the science, the other is holding the sword.

And sometimes- rarely, in recent years- I just get really pissed off and give them a piece of my mind. And that always backfires.

Anon 11:31- Good point. I think right now the devastation of the dream ending is still worse than the potential relief. Hence the hesitation.

bsci- Yes. But as a scientist I feel like it's hard to know until I try something, how much I will actually like it. And if I stay where I am, I can't really do the experiment, can I?

chall- I agree, it gets harder as we get older.

I am kind of taking the route of looking to apply for Those Jobs and
maybe do some interviews and see what seems exciting. Maybe I will receive one of those shiny over-the-head lightbulbs I've heard the universe sometimes sends?

Anon 8:42- You sound like my therapist. She is also of the opinion that even if it worked out somehow, I probably wouldn't be happy, because it won't be worth all of this misery.

thinkerbell- by coach you mean what exactly? I tried paying someone to advise me on job apps a few years ago, and it was an enormous waste of money. Would not go that route again.

also, postdocs are not eligible for career center services at my Uni. Great idea though. Maybe you could tell the administration for me? 'K, thx.

I have thought about other kinds of jobs, a lot. But I don't know enough about what the reality would be for me, with my current skills, etc. to try to get a job I would actually enjoy. Most things, it seems, involve a period of suffering before you get to do the good parts?

rocketscientista- hold onto that optimism. i wish i still had mine.

psycgirl- I did tell her, a couple of sessions ago.

Anon 9:34- It's funny you should say that, since it's my instinct too that it's better to decide and move on.

My therapist has been trying to encourage me to take more time deciding, which I think is helpful in a way but also makes it harder- sometimes it's just a prolonged period of second-guessing back and forth, right? She likes to say that it's important not to just be "reactive" and try to jump on the first safe thing that comes along, which she is sort of accusing me of having done in the past (as if I didn't solicit advice and do my homework before making the choices I've made). I'm not really sure if I agree that choosing from what's available to you in a short time frame, armed with as much information as you can gather, should be labeled as "reactive".

It doesn't really make sense to me since part of my problem is that I am already blaming myself enough when I am depressed- that is essentially the definition. how did I get myself into this mess. But the truth is, it doesn't make me feel better to have her go back and label my choices as bad decisions- if anything it makes me feel even less confident that I can make good ones now, no matter how long I deliberate.

Interesting point about system vs. daily tasks. As many others have said, a big aspect is that it's in large part my current toxic environment that is the problem. I have definitely been in situations where the daily tasks were a joy, but not here, not for a while. When even the daily tasks are an uphill battle, and you have no control over that, that's when I really want to get out.

I have always hated the system.

Labels: , ,