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.