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.

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At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stopped reading AWIS a long time ago... (And yes, I am still a YFS, just like you.) A lot of people I have spoken with assume the fact that you have a choice... you CHOSE to go to grad school/postdoc. Therefore, you can chose what is next for you; I don't buy it. Who is going to hire me, a PhD who is overqualified for pretty much everything and will likely be playing the same kinds of psychology games as the upper management (yet I would be in an entry level position).

At 10:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's preposterous that one needs to make the "correct" choice of what to work on way back in grad school or the rest of your career is messed up. First of all, much of what we do as students and postdocs is not up to us. What we work on depends in large part on our PIs who are paying us, or the fellowships we get. Secondly, even if we were allowed to work on whatever we wanted all the way starting from grad school and things like funding and resources were not an issue in dictating what we work on, it's unrealistic that as a mere grad student you would understand all the unwritten and hushed rules about what the "correct" choices are.

Yet, as absurd as the idea is that one needs to have "planned ahead" starting in grad school or one's career is messed up, the sad thing is that those people who give the allusion that they did this, are the ones who succeed.

All the people I know who successfully transitioned from postdoc to being PIs, have been what I've seen on other posts in this blog being referred to as "one-trick ponies". They did the exact same one thing starting from grad school all the way through postdoc and got their PI position based on that. However, this is a huge gamble that your one-and-only-trick is going to pay off in terms of being what your targeted department wants or that you can sustain that single track with funding long enough to get somewhere with it. Also, the people I know who did this, weren't consciously planning ahead since grad school, they just ended up safely sticking to what they knew, hence becoming "one-trick-ponies". Yet they were perceived by hiring committees as having "planned their careers well".

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that AWIS article actually online somewhere? I'm not a member nor is my university (I'm in Eastern Europe).

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 9:03,

I'm amused that you stopped. AWIS keeps whining that younger women aren't interested, but they miss the point that we're not interested because they don't represent our views. This issue I'm referring to had more articles from younger-looking FSs than usual, and yet, one seemed to be suggesting that boys are naturally better that math than girls (!). Made me wonder if they read their own submissions before they publish them, or if they really have no clue at all.

I agree re: choice, as does the next person-

Anon 10:55,

This is a good point. Yes, I chose my thesis lab and yes, within that lab I did have some choice about my thesis project. Similarly, I chose my postdoc lab and I chose my postdoc project(s). However, when I started grad school, nobody was saying to me that this would dictate the rest of my career, that even if I wanted to switch fields later it would be very difficult, etc.

I also agree re: the one-trick pony thing. A lot of it is chalked up to "luck", in the sense that if you're going to pick one trick, you better hope it's going to be in vogue enough to sustain funding, but not so popular that you'll be in constant competition with a horde of other ponies...

Like I said, I'm not sure anyone sees these things coming and chooses out of wisdom rather than preference, convenience, or dumb luck.

Anon 11:34,

I think you'd have to join to be able to get it online. I think you can, though. I think it includes international membership (?) but I'm not sure about that. Then again, I'm not sure it's worth the membership fee! I think they would be better off making the magazine free online, personally I don't really see the point in making people subscribe.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous labbrat said...

I can't read the AWIS article online, but from what you've said, it sounds like they're saying that you need to plan your career/topics of study in order to be successful at interdisciplinary science. That kind of cracks me up, because I have a PI who gets a TON of credit for being interdisciplinary/translational/etc., but his formal training was not in the areas you'd really associate with this kind of research. He is, of course, a white guy who is extremely skilled at networking/bullshitting/politics. THAT (and pretty much only that) is what I thought you needed to do interdisciplinary science.

At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Sarah said...

At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo scientist cartoons!


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