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.

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At 11:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm a long-time reader and fan and new commenter. I don't think it's your field. I think there's all kinds of f-ing crazy out there, no matter what subfield you're in.

I'm in what I think is a very different sub-field of science and I'm experiencing lots of similar problems, plus general problems (not field-specific) of feeling like I was duped into the PhD thing when there were never enough jobs for all of us and some sort of golden, shiny, soul-sucking, academic job prize was dangled in front of us all.

I hear you. I'm rooting for you. I love your posts.

Another FS

At 4:33 AM, Anonymous Lurulu said...


At 5:47 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

Yeah, that's a nice funny spin on a painful truth! I should make my master's students read it just so that they can't turn round and say 'but you never told me it would be like this'.

As for doing something - well, it's field dependent, and lab by lab. But in my experience (in a muddy, not terribly fashionable, not-NIH-equivalent-funded field of science, of course) there's an awful lot of grass roots level things going on within labs and institutions which are at least TRYING to make things better for those coming along now. Maybe your field isn't like that... maybe MY field isn't like that at the really big money places, or the US places, or something. But whilst I greatly regret the slow pace of change I do not despair of the possibility of change, because I see it starting.

Cold comfort when you're in such an untenable position yourself - I hope you can at least find a way forward soon, even if it's not your perfect dream route

At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slim chances indeed. First time round, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. Second time around (after leaving first grad school utterly disheartened), I knew more what I didn't want to do and kept myself open. I'm now doing something I had never seen myself doing, and very much loving it (most of the time). I also wound up with almost two built in advisors/mentors, each with specific strengths and it works that it makes things a bit better.

As much as grad schools tell you to know what you want coming in, it does severely limit you. I think having an idea of what you absolutely could never do, and then leaving the possibilities open is a bit better. But once you hit post-doc, you're pretty much locked in. Which sucks.

I do like the advisor math, though. So true, so true.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous A said...

Time to try something completely new and off the wall. It might just work.

Few people understand the difficulties of pursuing a scientific career and our strange insistence on staying in "our hell." But when its good it can be amazingly good.

Maybe it helps to know you are not alone.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Phagenista said...

I can't argue with the appraisal of the five professors interested in cheeseburgers... but I want to list some ways to cope with these problems.

If you're really dedicated to cheeseburgers you can follow the prof who didn't get tenure to wherever s/he goes next. If you've got a great transcript, you can get your own funding from an NSF, NRSA, etc to take over your pre- or postdoctoral stipend once your advisor's funding falters. The more time-consuming option is to cobble together funding by teaching many semesters for the tuition remission and stipend -- something that's the norm in some areas of biology, just not biomedical research. Teaching to support yourself in an unpaid postdoc is also an option, one a good friend of mine did for two years before getting a regular postdoc at a top 10 university. You also can quit a program and start somewhere else -- I know several professors that left their first graduate school, sometimes making life-long enemies in the process, and their careers were unaffected. It makes sense to move to a place where you know you mesh with your next advisor though... I'm not sure how many times you can shift schools without consequences.

And then there's the non-cheeseburger option: I dealt with some of the five professors above by choosing to work on chicken sandwiches instead. If I had wanted to keep working on cheeseburgers I would have had to switch universities, but by moving to a related field, I found a supportive mentor whose personality did mesh with mine. This is one of the many reasons it make sense to do rotations and to get to know many professors at your new university when you first arrive.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Another FS- thanks. And I'm rooting for you, too.

JaneB- I'll take whatever small comfort that things might be better for someone else, even if they're not going to be better for me. I just HATE the idea that scientists can't learn from their own mistakes, or teach their trainees how to avoid re-making them.

rocketscientista- sounds like you made the right choices. good on you!

A- it helps.


And uh, all those backup plan suggestions for postdocs? They kinda suck. There is NO way that teaching for 2 years would keep me current or competitive with other cheeseburger-researchers.

And you can't cobble together funding as a postdoc for more than the first few years.

At least at my university, when all your fellowship money runs out, you can't get promoted OR apply for grants. And then you're screwed.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger yolio said...

The best advice I got before grad school was to choose your advisor first, and your flavor of cheeseburgers second. I still consider this to be the first principle of choosing advisors.

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to some of these issues is not to be locked in to studying Cheeseburgers. If your field is fast food, you make your life a LOT easier, and keep many more options open, if you are open to studying many different topics. It's all science, and much of it is interesting. I can't even imagine entering grad school knowing exactly what I wanted to work on. I love my field in general, but other factors (geography, mentor, and my own happiness) are MUCH more important to me than the specific topic that I study. And really, who gives a shit that protein x phosphorylates factor y in a mouse model of disease Z? It is so mimimalistic, I'd think most people who lock into things like this will lose sight of the big picture.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous labbrat said...

I just need to say that the idea of doing an "unpaid postdoc" just blew. my. mind. I thought doing a *paid* postdoc was going to be my plan Z after leaving grad school. MsPhD, maybe you should edit Phagenista's comment - I'm just a lowly grad student, but I fear that the "unpaid postdoc" idea might spread through the PI ranks like wildfire. :)

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous 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.

The "didn't get tenure" advisor you mentioned is interesting. It turns out that many of the personality traits that eventually lead to a person winding up denied tenure are exactly the same traits that would make that person a good advisor.

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Toni said...

I think the key is to lower expectations so that at least some of your criteria can be satisfied.

After having many bad experiences with advisors who were anything but mentors (backstabbing, conniving, verbally-abusive jerks that they were), I now place working relationships as the top priority for searching for a new job, even if the research topic itself is not something I am interested in. Of course with the economy being what it is, I may not even have the luxury of choosing based on anything, I may just have to take the first job I can get regardless of what it's like.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi YFS. You may (or may not) find the following recent threads on mentoring in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion boards useful or interesting:

mentoring of (by?) female faculty


The discussions have gotten too personal in some instances but you can see that there are many of us who had difficulty finding good mentors, and some other posters gave us a few good pointers about what to do about it all.

Hope this helps.

(my moniker in those two threads is rambling)

At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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? I've worked for asshole advisors who were anything but mentors (backstabbing, lying, conniving jerks), but at least they had funding so I didn't run out of funding, and I got to work on the topic of my choice. When I switched labs to get away from the evil advisor, the next lab was a less evil place, but I no longer got to work on what I wanted. You can't have everything because as you pointed out, it is statistically very unlikely that all the criteria can be fulfilled at one lab.

At 2:39 PM, Anonymous nicole said...

Where the hell do postdocs do rotations? What field is that? Never heard of it.

These posts are depressingly accurate. I understand and share your point of view of science completely. It is supremely unfair. The reason no one hears these things early in their "career" (I put in quotes b/c most of us won't have a long-term career in science) is because the faculty members are the ones who got through without a struggle. Really, it does happen to some people, a few, the ones who fill the faculty ranks. They do a PhD, they get postdoc, they get some fellowships along the way, they get a faculty position, they get grants. It does happen for some. They've never had to consider the people for whom it doesn't happen. They'll train 20 students and postdocs, and if they're really great maybe 5-10 will get permanent positions. If not, maybe 1. Superstars can maybe boast up to 15/20 success rate? Just speculating. But you see, in the faculty member's mind, obviously the ones who don't make it did something wrong, because they themselves made it.

The thing is, you don't want to accept this. It's good to go through it so you stop blaming yourself so making some wrong decisions (I don't think you did). It totally sucks, and I know it's frustrating, but you getting mad about it won't change a damn thing. Many people agree with you. They don't have power. The ones with power think the system works.

As for non-scientists, no one cares as long as work is getting done. And it is getting done. Scientists are making discoveries, even if it is inefficient. You will never change the system. No one will ever change the system, because no one is truly in charge. It is depressing if you think about it too much. So my advice is to stop thinking about it after you've gotten to the point of freeing yourself from blame.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Toni said...

I forgot to sign my name to my last post, I'm Toni and also Anon@12:08. I wrote the first post with my name but when I submitted it it wasn't clear if it went thru and later when I tried to rewrite the post i couldn't remember exactly the point I wanted to make. glad to see both my posts went thru, sorry if it is redundant

At 8:32 PM, Blogger EngiNerd said...

Sometimes I wonder if we are twins... after a horrible day today, I sadly read that your world sucks as bad as mine.

At 6:16 AM, Anonymous Mike_F said...

Not sure if this is relevant to the U.S.A situation, but in my country people typically look for an advisor and lab' for their PhD, and only after finding one that matches, they apply to the graduate school that hosts that lab'. This is after completing a 3 year B.Sc. and 2 year M.Sc., so typically by then they should have some idea of their preferences. Seems to work better than the scenario you describe.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Quest Bird said...

On the depression issue. I understand it can be very hard to let go, especially in the logical paradox. But any "bad decisions" made are in the past, you've atoned for it enough already.

I've been in lots of therapy. The most recent style focuses on what's effective, not what's right or wrong. Also, sometimes things suck even if you make the best possible choice you're capable of, because other people are also always making choices.

Not that I'm trying to be an additional therapist. I just read your blog and wish I could help.


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