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.

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At 12:58 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

I'm in Corp-World, so have a different perspective. That being said, you CAN NOT go back and question all the things you did wrong or might do over because there are no do overs. You didn't have the benefit of hindsight when you made those decisions, so it's time to move on. Yes some things you can learn directly from, but most mistakes like that it's better to stop looking backwards.

Also, the conundrum of "good boss" vs "work I enjoy/that challenges me" is a common one in the working world. Do you take the interesting/challenging job with the a-hole boss, or maybe the high visibility possible promotion job with a-hole boss, or high paid but menial labor and no challenge job. I know you'll just say well in corp-world you can change jobs whenever you like, but that's never necessarily been true. Much the same that a post-doc is "stuck" in a lab, private employees really only get one or two "short term" things on their resume before it starts hurting them in the long term, and the current economy makes it pretty much impossible to do anything but be thankful you have a job.

I guess I'm just trying to say, stop being so hard on yourself for what you didn't know. Focus on what you CAN control/change NOW. [I'm not you, so I don't know what that is, but maybe there's something/]

At 1:41 PM, Blogger yolio said...

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

I was told this by several faculty members at my undergraduate institution. I was lucky to have several excellent mentors as an undergraduate. In fact, I am still pretty much coasting on the mentoring that they gave me, since I have yet to find anything close to such good advice in the "grown-up" phase of my science life.

As for worrying about getting stuck on something boring, I wouldn't. One of the things that makes the right advisor the right advisor is that they are an interesting, smart person with a reasonably similar science world view as you. This means that they are doing what interests them, and what interests them will interest you too.

My philosophy is that there are any number of interesting problems in the world. It is easy to find something cool to work on. It is much harder to find someone cool to work with.

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could be making SO MUCH MORE PROGRESS if you weren't so supremely fucked up. You could have written any number of papers if it weren't for this "I gotta protect myself by blaming everyone else" attitude on your career, and the assumption that it's not just the ONLY but the "best" way deal with your situation. It may be nothing more than the best way to explain away your irrelevant science, as far as I can tell!

At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear you. The academic structure is so messed up and based on favoritism, big names and letters of reference that it's hard to figure out why we bother. At my school 30-50% of assistant faculty get "let go" w/o tenure. That's after the 2-4 yr of shitty pay as a post doc and the 5 years of poor pay as an assistant prof. And all that so we can deal with 10% funding lines with the NIH?

I'm a grad. student interning in the pharmaceutical industry right now: I think I might sell my soul to big pharma instead of academia. Less work, less stress, more pay, more resources to get your work done.

Good luck

At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of your points, a lot of the time. There is sexism in the field (and other fields), there is a messed-up system for handing out the money, and there are just a lot of assholes in science who we are forced to get along with.

But welcome to the real world.

Why should science be any different?

If your blog were solely a communication of how generally messed up the system is and how you think we could change it, then it would make sense that you are pointing all these things out. But a lot of what you are complaining is very specific to your situation and that of people you personally know.

So I'll be specific to myself and people I personally know too. I just got my PhD and then I went and got a single interview (after sending out a ton of CVs and 'networking') and I got the job in a field that is only barely related to what I studied in any of my previous labs. I'm doing a lot of self-education as well as being in charge of educating those underneath me, but hey, isn't that what we were trained to do as PhD candidates? I'm thrilled.

Some might look down on my position, in light of all the years that I've been 'preparing,' but I got what I want -- I'm being paid to use my brain, paid enough to support my family and I know that whatever this job is like, it's better than being unemployed. Or working something menial that doesn't command respect from the general populace, or healthcare coverage. Like several of my relatives. I wouldn't dare complain to them that, whine, I didn't get a job in the perfect area of research with a loving mentor. I'd get laughed at. I am lucky and view myself as successful, and so is everybody else with a job they can at least tolerate. You do protest too much about how we all deserve AN ACADEMIC JOB with guaranteed tenure and in an area and with coworkers that we like. No one really gets that in any sort of version in the real world. Your points are valid; your attitude is off the mark.

p.s. - my PhD PI sat on all my publications too...god only knows when/if I'll get my first author out. Having gotten this job with only a few not-first-author publications, I hold my PI somewhat responsible for why I didn't at least get more interviews....and that's precisely why I got the hell out from under his influence....I don't hate him at all now...

At 8:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I picked my cheesburgers. Went to a place where I could work on my cheeseburgers. With my own money to work on cheeseburgers. Advisor said I could work on cheeseburgers. Never even considered the possibility of my advisor wanting nothing to do with cheeseburgers anymore as soon as I started. Still love them cheeseburgers, even though advisor wants to turn me into a vegan.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Enginerd said...

I've been working as a research assistant at the university during my undergrad, and wow did my plans ever change! I was always told that you had to find your passion and find one specific thing you were crazy about, and that was more important than anything. But, from talking to grad students, especially disillusioned ones, it's starting to become clearer that picking a good supervisor is equally important.

I can't imagine picking a Ph.D supervisor without knowing them really well first! Haha I'd want references for them from their students.

At 2:56 AM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

I learned alot of this early on and I hope it will help me navigate the PhD and post doc better. My first mentor in my masters was very supportive of ideas and creativity but had no funding and didn't apply enough pressure to move the project along, second mentor had intermittent funding and very interesting research and connections, but thought I was a lost cause, left the country and finally found a mentor that was caring, involved, and funded (incidentally a woman with all female students), got the thesis and degree and came back and wowed mentor 2 and now i get paid, have the freedom to do whatever i like, pick trainees, and got a good position in a top school . . . but I think this course was only possible early on in the career, I can't imagine trying to change this much in the PhD or once in a funded post-doc. We need an anonymous lab/mentor reviewing site so we can direct others to locations in their area of interest that they would have the best chance of success in.

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

In contrast, I don't find that disgusting, I find it a reflection of real life. You don't "have to" work on something else, but given the choice, the lest masochistic of us choose the easier, more pleasant path. Which I think is the key to your struggles, that you seem to be a true idealist, and you want to change the world (or, at least, the science world). That's great, and maybe someday in some way you'll succeed. But personally, I'm happy to work within the system because that's how it is. I could make myself a lot unhappier by swimming upstream like you, but life is too short in my opinion. Hey, more power to you, but I wouldn't trade personalities with you for ten million dollars.

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

why is it so upsetting to change your research direction in order to get away from a foul climate? I think the foul climate sucks the joy out of any coolness in research. Whereas in a better environment, a gawdawful boring research topic may seem more acceptable to you simply because you are now in an overall better place mentally and emotionally and it colors the way you see other things.

I just did this. I switched fields to get out of my own toxic and dead-end lab/community. since in each sub-field everyone knows everyone, I couldnt' stay in my original area of research and just go to a different lab and not encounter the same old roadblocks and politics and now furthermore have to deal with former colleagues gossiping about me. I had to switch out of that field.

it was hard to find a new lab to take me given my different background and expertise, and other geographical constraints. the sacrifice I had to make was giving up on what I wanted to research on, and agree to do whatever "they" wanted me to do which is not interesting to me.

However, I find that this is more than compensated for by the better environment. Not having my hackles up all day every day (after spending years that way) makes me feel like I've been reborn!!

(talk about standards being lowered that just having a drama-free and conflict-free day at work is like a religious experience, huh?)

I know the thought of working on anything besides what you are interested and personally vested in seems extremely horrible. But that's probably cos you envision it in the context of being on top of all the other sh!t you are dealing with. Imagine if a lot (not all, but most) of the other sh!t suddenly went away you might find it less awful to be working on something that right now doesn't interest you intellectually. Remove the negativity from your environment and your outlook towards other things like research topics may change.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Thinkerbell said...

To the Anonymouses who switched direction: Maybe that's ok if you want to hang in a postdoc for a few years. But what if you are at the stage where you want to establish yourself in subfield X because you want to set up your own lab in X? Then it won't help at all to jump to subfield Y all for the sake of a better atmosphere and easier climate, if that means your whole career will then be about Y. Unless you care more about the job and position than about the academic freedom. But who is to say if hiring committees will like Y more than X? I am torn on this one.

At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every university I've worked at there have been people who were in bad situations and were unhappy and spent a lot of time complaining about it... and there are people who were in the same labs but figured out how to get what they needed to succeed, got it, and moved on and up. A little complaining is human nature, a lot is a massive waste of time and energy!

Sort out what you want for the future and start figuring out how you are going to get it. You are too smart and too hard-working to waste your time moaning.

At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Anon8:26 You do protest too much about how we all deserve AN ACADEMIC JOB with guaranteed tenure and in an area and with coworkers that we like. No one really gets that in any sort of version in the real world.

I do know people who got this (except for the part about tenure being "guaranteed" but I think MsPhD isn't even at that point yet to where she can worry about getting tenure). That is why I don't think msPhD's attitude is off the mark like you say. It is not as unrealistic as you say, if there are people attaining it. it bothers her, just as it bothers me, that there ARE people who get these things that you mention, yet at the same time for so many other equally qualified and worthy postdocs it's not attainable no matter how much we strive for it for no matter how many years. Surely all the years of sacrifice and waiting and striving should eventually pay off to get you what you what other people have gotten with far less effort?

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Frau Dr. LOL said...


I just very recently started reading this blog. I think it offers refreshing insights. I have had many of the same thoughts you are expressing in the current post. I am on my second postdoc but I quit the first one after only one year because as far back as the beginning of my graduate studies I have been vaccillating between selling-out and soing applied research I'm successful at and doing something more creative but going insane. Every position I have had has been alternating between the two. I could blame the system, its pressures, but as I "mature" I think, isn't that just decadent of me? Lots of people are just scraping-by in life..

Regarding the issue of mentoring you bring up, it is related to my expreiences I have described. I am a fiercely-independent person but at the same time, I do not do research out of my home garage. I have to play along with the system according to my limits.
I used to be in Canada and the USA. Currently, I am in Germany, and I find the system far more constraining and mentor-dependent here, which is bad in my opinion, but those who do get ahead, go far...So the US system, for all its flaws, is not that bad, in comparison. Can it be better? Sure but there is still some element of meritocracy at work.

Good luck. Stay strong.

At 4:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

THIS is why science as a profession is so messed up. Here is yet another person hurt by an extremely dysfunctional system who has used her own environment [this blog] to blow off some steam about a bad situation. What do we see in response? The same stuff that happens in person behind the back of the scientist who "dares to complain" - a chorus of "what a bad attitude;" "she's just not good enough;" "she's not serious about her research [the kiss of death];" "she complains without giving solutions [as if 1 person could come up with all the ideas needed to fix a VERY BROKEN SYSTEM;]" "she's lucky to have a job at all;" "welcome to the real world [as if anyone who hasn't worked in the science system really understands the true nature of the little fiefdoms it creates.]" Other professions have unions to at least try to protect them from the types of exploitation that are typical in your everyday science lab, but if we’re “lucky” enough to work in science, we daren’t complain for fear of reprisals. Just look at the vitriol of some of the comments to complaints in this blog!

YoungFemaleScientist, good luck to you. I too have been chewed up and spit out by the profession I love. I know MANY people [female and male] who also been forced out, but thought of as "leaked out," of the pipeline in a brutal apprenticeship system that is self-perpetuating because those who support it stay and those who don't leave.

Good luck and don't let the turkeys get you down.

At 5:15 AM, Anonymous bsci said...

I learned about the importance of choosing an advisor indirectly as an undergrad and people explicitly told me as a grad student looking for postdocs.
As an undergrad, I ended up selecting a grad school that allowed for research rotations rather than forcing me to commit to working for someone I'd only met for a 30min interview.

I think your contrast of choosing advisor vs research is flawed. Every lab is different, but there's a lot of overlap. If the "best" lab for your research interests has a bad advisor, there is probably somewhere else that lets you do something identical or similar with a good advisor. If an entire subfield is full of bad advisors that who don't support their students and teach them how to be productive leaders, then, frankly, that IS bad science and a bad area to work. As your own experience seems to be showing, going to a lab with a non-great advisor and all the equipment you need doesn't let you do your research any better than going to an imperfect research lead with a great advisor willing to try new things.

At 7:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the problems with this blog is that due to its anonymous nature we cannot fairly judge whether the things you describe are truly accurate.

Many of the things you assert are certainly plausible, even likely, but everything you write is biased by your viewpoint. How can we tell if you're as good as you think you are? How can we assess that the research you want to do (as opposed to your PI's project) is as great as you say it is?

What are you like to work with as a person? If your outward personality is reflective of you blog personality, then I would wager that you might not be the most likable individual.

Clearly not everything is your fault, but no one can tell how much of it has to do with you on the basis of your blog posts. You actually remind of my sister. With her it's always an issue with her supervisor, never with her (non-science related).

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best move I made was working as a tech for 2 years at a university biomedical department before going to grad school. very eye opening, and was able to observe lots of different styles of mentors. When it came time for grad school, I was picky about making sure people were studying what I was interested in, and then when I interviewed, I payed close attention to what kind of people were in the PI's lab- were they happy, and what did they have to say about the PI vs other PIs at the school. I ended up with a fantastic mentor and a great grad school experience. I picked my postdoc advisor based on two things- 1) the science of course, and 2) my grad school mentor's assessment of temperament and mentoring style of the potential postdoc advisors I was considering. Which narrowed it down to 1, which thankfully has worked out very well so far.

At 9:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Thinkerbell: I'm the Anon who had switched fields. In answer to your queries:

My switch wasn't just to a different (but somewhat related of course) field, but from a postdoc (which had gone on way too long) to a PI-type position at a research institute. Nevertheless it was a last resort when everything else had failed and my postdoc was dragging on for longer than is sustainable.

No one has pure academic freedom even in academia, so compromising on your field of research in order to stay employed as a scientist, is not exactly giving up all that much intellectual freedom as one might assume. As a professor you may not have someone come up to you and give you orders to "work on Y, don't work on X" but it will happen indirectly in the form of which projects the funding agencies will and won't give you funding for. And, the winds always change and what's fashionable today may not be 5 years from now. let's say you are passionate about field X but there's no longer an interest in funding it, but field Y - which is uninteresting to you but is within your capabilities nonetheless - is something that is currently hot. You will eventually be forced to switch your research direction to Y or be faced with no funding - which in turn leads to inability to get tenure and being kicked out of science.

There's also other valid reasons to switch fields if it's the only way to get out of a bad environment. it took me years in my postdoc to learn that the work environment/climate is not to be underestimated as a help or hindrance. In fact I was surprised at just how much it counts because like many naive postdocs, I thought science careers were merit-based. In fact, in many cases - such as mine and probably MsPhD's too - your environment can be the primary factor in making or breaking a career. Glass Ceilings do exist at all levels and I'm not just talking about gender-based glass ceilings but also those related to anything related from who you are associated with or not associated with, to which lab you come from and any other number of things.

If you want to stay in field X, then by all means stay in field X and keep trying. But don't be afraid to switch fields if the long-term data is pointing toward it being the only way to stay employed as a scientist. (unless you are such a purist that you would rather be completely unemployed or leave science altogether, than apply your skills and intellectual abilities to a different research topic.)

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"YoungFemaleScientist, good luck to you. I too have been chewed up and spit out by the profession I love. I know MANY people [female and male] who also been forced out, but thought of as "leaked out," of the pipeline in a brutal apprenticeship system that is self-perpetuating because those who support it stay and those who don't leave."

By choosing to stay, you are supporting it yourself! If you don't like the system, then leave. The fact is that there is a huge oversupply of people interested in science, especially in the US because it attracts people from all over the world (who will work for peanuts). You can change your own attitude, but you can't change the fundamental economics here.


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