Sunday, August 30, 2009

This explains a lot.

I was reading a list this morning of who got ARRA funding. All I saw was support for my feeling that it's the same bunch who always get money anyway. I don't really understand what the point of that was. Then I saw this post explaining that PIs don't keep track of money.

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bloggers getting outed - apparently Google will just give you up? Not comforting news. By way of angry physics.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

link to a repost of a great post

Data: an example of widespread cultural assumptions about women and PhDs

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

From the unscientific files: favoritism

You should make sure to read this really interesting post at FSP about how to relate to students after they leave. There were 26 comments when I checked, and all of them made really good points about the student-adviser relationship.

I guess what bothers me about the whole friends/not-friends question that FSP poses (about whether it's unfair to relate to her former students differently) is this: the implication that she probably related to them differently when they were in the lab.

And obviously, how unscientific this all is. Maybe if our whole system weren't predicated on the assumption of advising, it would be okay? But since we all are still living with the Myth of Mentoring, allow me to elaborate (it is my blog, after all).

I know, we all try to be fair and all that. But let's be honest. Most of my problems with my postdoc adviser have to do with -isms. Which is to say, if I were one of the Blond Guys, I would probably be a favorite.

But since I'm not, I'm occasionally subjected to woman-specific advice.

Yes, in the moment it is offensive.

In the next moment, I move on.

But what stays with me is the implication of what this represents: a deep-seated bias that has influenced every single decision my adviser has made about my project or me.

Every step of the way, my work has been degraded simply because it was done by me.

Every step of the way, when I needed to be introduced to people at meetings, or otherwise advised, I was not. And yet, I've witnessed other people in the lab getting all kinds of mentoring.

And yet, maybe it's not such a bad thing to miss out on. The meager advice I did get was terrible, so I stopped seeking it out. More than once, I did something my adviser insisted upon, only to be told by reviewers or search committees to do the opposite. Sometimes with the admonition Who told you to do that? Get rid of it!

Maybe I'm less appreciative than most, because I was the teacher's pet more than once before I went to grad school.

The first time, I was pretty young. The other kids attacked me for it, and I didn't know why. I didn't even realize I was getting special attention! It was a traumatic and memorable introduction to the power and consequences of jealousy.

The second time, I was abused by the teacher, who had me doing her job while she was off with her boyfriend. But I worshiped her, and I loved the privilege of doing what she did. It wasn't until much later, when she didn't reciprocate by supporting me when I really needed it, that I realized how unprofessional and inappropriate she had been in taking advantage of my enthusiasm for the subject.

So while I have had other, really good advising relationships, these kinds of experiences have made me distrust advisers at worst, but even at best I am always wary of being the favorite - or being perceived by my peers as the favorite.

Generally my advisers alternate being harsh in private with being laudatory in public. This can include such twisted interpretations as lab meetings being "private" and recommendation letters being "public", or vice-versa, depending on the day.

I guess at the end of the day, I really would rather have an adviser or former adviser who was fair, competent, trustworthy and dependable than someone who

a) loved me but couldn't follow through when I needed their help (had a few of those)

b) someone who was perceived to be fair, spectacular and trustworthy but who hated me randomly (had one of those)

c) someone who was perceived to be competent and dependable but who proved to be completely unfair and untrustworthy (one of those is enough!)

I guess what I'm coming to in writing this is that in my experience, the ones who play favorites and try to rationalize it or deny it are unfair in more ways than one. Which makes them, at best, untrustworthy as advisers. And at worst, untrustworthy as scientists.

I hope FSP is not one of these Favoritists. She seems passionate about her science to a point where I have to suspect we have at least this one trait in common: the ability to be more annoyed when people get in the way of science, than the other way around.

But speaking of the other way around, I guess the other point of favorites is that scientists will often work on new things just because they want an excuse to work with friends. Or choose a thesis lab just because they like the adviser. Or choose not to take a talented student because the existing lab members don't like this person socially.

What scares me is that this is essentially the essence of the old-boys network. Women are starting to develop separate networks, which is good in some ways but maybe a little too "separate but equal" - which is not good. Maybe it's an intermediate step, I don't know. But the privileges awarded via friendship seem to be the major currency of our culture. Careers are made or lost based on these little back-pats and leg-ups. I know I forward job ads and coupon offers, not to my enemies, but to my friends. We all do. And we all do it at work, too.

You get the idea. I'm not sure how to take the friend factor out of science, but it's something I wish we could overcome.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Being burned is not the same as burned out.

Okay, so I gave you the punchline up front. Consider yourselves punched.

I had this revelation today while recalling a conversation I had recently with a relatively snot-nosed first year postdoc (why are first year postdocs the most obnoxious beings on the planet? Yes, you got your PhD. No, you are not any smarter than any of the rest of us.)

She made some comment about burnout and it kind of pissed me off. She was doing that thing that most first year postdocs do: assuming it would be different for her. As in, much easier because she is sooooo much smarter than any other postdoc that ever walked the planet.

Okay, so I probably sound that way about becoming faculty, but you have to admit that getting burned as a postdoc will probably be most useful if I stay in academia.

I have seen a heckuva lot of shit that many young faculty I've met (and some senior faculty) didn't know existed (deniers). And they wouldn't know how to handle it if it happened to them or one of their students/postdocs.... or in their department... or when they were sitting in a meeting for a thesis committee... etc.

But I do. Because I've actually been there, done that, and figured a few things out.

All this time I've been thinking I was burned out. But the truth is, I still really do like doing science. Unbelievably, I have to admit that I still really like doing even the tedious parts. Even though sometimes I think I wouldn't mind if I never had to run another gel as long as I live, if I'm really honest with myself, I think I would miss it. I would miss never doing minipreps, never holding a pipette. I really would.

It's too easy to be overwhelmed by all the other shit. I definitely have gotten burned. That's what you get for walking through the fire (yes, I was thinking of the Buffy musical).

I'll admit, I'm pretty cynical about the possibility that there are places that won't burn you at every turn. I'm straight up when I warn the grad students (ahem, and newly-minted postdocs) to be VERY careful about choosing a postdoc lab, and I'm usually skeptical no matter where they choose. I worry for these little chickadees. I hate to think they're going to be fried chickens.

But I really don't like the idea that just because I've gotten screwed over repeatedly means I'm somehow used up completely. And I don't think it's true. I think I still have a lot of good ideas in me, science or blog post or what have you. Whatever I end up doing.

So there, Dr. Snot. Maybe you're just burned out and projecting it onto me. Whatevs. I'm just a little tougher on the outside than I was before. Doesn't mean I'm extra crispy.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Attention deficit

Haven't been writing much lately; haven't been reading too many other blogs, either.

Don't have the attention span to slog through other people's long, un-paragraphed posts.

Generally feel better on the days when, if I write in my journal at night before I go to bed, I can list off having done lots of different kinds of things, some for work and some for fun. Usually that correlates with satisfying both parts of my brain, being physically tired, and feeling general progress.

Somehow doing one thing, even one long arduous thing, doesn't seem as satisfying. I end up feeling like I didn't get anything done at all.

Had a couple of good, variety-filled days this week, and couple of frustrating sucky ones.

Some of the things I did in lab actually worked, but mostly I feel indecisive about what I should be doing next, scientifically speaking.

I have things I want to start, and things that I should finish that I don't feel like working on. Where I'm just stuck and trying to figure out how to go around the giant pothole that was the experiment I was planning to insert into Figure X part f.

Usually when this happens, I start throwing darts. I do the equivalent of poking around, scientifically speaking, with a bunch of pilot experiments aimed at asking about the underlying assumption that was Figure X - what created the pothole in the first place.

This really appeals to my attention deficit self. The trick is to get in and out as quickly as possible, or it's easy to hang around and spin my wheels just for fun. Doing lots of one-off experiments = fun, but not necessarily productive.

Eventually I will have to hunker down and be "focused". But when things are not working as expected, banging away at it as if it's my fault usually just leads to headache. If it were something I was doing wrong, I would have figured it out with a reasonable amount of banging. Anything beyond that means I'm banging on the wrong wall.

So I feel a little guilty about throwing darts, but I don't know where to go from here without doing that step first.

If there's anything I've learned in all the time I've been doing science, it's that when I'm stuck it's because the assumptions are wrong, not because I'm technically inept. I've also learned that I can't ask my advisers what they think I should do next. Asking my advisers always leads to suggestions, but following up on the suggestions never gets me where I want to go.

The best solution is to figure it out for myself. I just need to feel a little less guilty about doing the part of my job that I actually like best- the creative, investigative part. Even if that's not the part that gets you fame, fortune, or a job anytime in the near future.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Impervious to cheerleading?

Got a very encouraging email today from one of my newer supporters.

In the last couple of years, I have acquired a few of these people. They're sort of like mentors, in the sense that they are partly giving advice, and partly cheerleading. Cheerleading mostly consists of them finding gentle but firm ways of telling me repeatedly that I have a warped view of my own accomplishments because of my toxic adviser's manipulation tactics.

Yes, some small part of my brain has a conversation that goes like this:

Are they just saying that to be nice?
Why are they being so nice to me?
Are they just being nice because there are so few women in science?

And part of my brain says:

Um, no. They have no reason to just be nice. So, they must mean it. DOES NOT COMPUTE. DOES NOT COMPUTE!!

But no matter how many nice things these cheerleaders or various strangers say to me, I still suck at taking any compliments about my work.

They say, "That sounds really interesting! What a great project! What nice results!"

And I say, "Well I think it's interesting. And it's very nice of you to say that, thank you."

But what I'm actually thinking is, I should really let this poor polite person get on with their day so they don't have to pretend to be interested in my project any longer.

It's really kind of sad. Supposedly this is one of the symptoms of "depression" - warped thinking, the inability to perceive positivity. So even though I'm feeling better than I was, I think this is a symptom I have had my entire life.

I just really have no idea how to genuinely thrive off of compliments. Applause, okay, I can enjoy that. Who doesn't like that? Gifts are fun too! But from a young age I had it drilled into my head that when people say nice things, it's just hot air and you should always ignore it. Worse than that, compliments could be dangerous - you might become arrogant and lazy!

I think this is partly related to gender roles. Girls are supposed to be seen and not heard; be helpful around the house instead of playing outside until after it gets dark. If someone gave me a compliment when I was little, it was usually for something meaningless or shallow, as in, "What a pretty little girl you are!" (and aren't most little girls pretty, anyway? isn't this something everyone says? doesn't the impersonality of it make it automatically meaningless?)

Then again, I was also the kid who openly disagreed with compliments. I distinctly remember being chastised by my mother after a random visitor to the house complimented me on something I was doing.

He said, "You're very good at that!"

I was probably about five years old, but I looked directly the guy and said, "No, I'm not."

I remember being baffled when my mother told me that it was more important to say "thank you", since it seemed like a direct contradiction to her general attitude.

Although she occasionally says it to me now (about things like cooking, for example), she would never have used the phrase "You're very good at that" about anything that mattered to me when I was growing up. For example, from a young age, I loved writing, but she always said she couldn't understand why I liked it so much because I wasn't very good at it.

As if enjoying something and being good at it are mutually dependent, or something.

I was taught that, just because I enjoyed doing a particular activity, and even if other people said I was doing well, that was never enough to determine whether I was actually good at it. I never won any awards, and I really wasn't a straight-A student. Therefore, I wasn't really very good at anything, as far as my parents were concerned.

So maybe it's partly because my adviser has not been exactly laudatory, and this is the pattern I learned from my family, but no matter how much positive feedback I get from other people, most of the time I feel like this is all well and good but the existing evidence suggests it might not matter much, practically speaking, in the long run.

Which is sort of the point, I think - the idea of living in the moment of a genuine compliment is to get that little glow, I guess, and say for right now, I am doing just fine, and all that matters is right now.


I was raised to worry about the things that last, though, in the sense that actions count for more than words. Reaching your goal, in my family, is more important than enjoying the process.

Which is stupid, because most of life is really about process, and reaching your goals usually just means moving on to the next one. If you just live from achievement to achievement, you're going to spend very little time actually enjoying anything.

And yet, science is set up so that certain types of goals are all that matter. You don't get credit for developing methods, unless they're published. It doesn't matter how much fun you had or how long it took. Process is nice, but achievement is what matters in the long run.

So while compliments can almost always be taken back or easily forgotten, if somebody is really willing to go out on a limb and do something to get you where you need to be, that's meaningful.

But I think these people are genuinely trying to do something by being my much-needed cheerleaders. I just can't quite get it through my thick head how to use positive feedback as persistence protein instead of discarding it like corrupting candy.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shut up, subconscious!

Been doing okay with the whole work-stress thing lately. At least, when I'm fully awake.

When I am angry or anxious, I go to the gym.

Switched to a new Omega-3-6-9 supplement and that is helping a lot with the apparently mild depression that seems to have gone away almost completely.

Calling a ridiculous and stressful situation at work "major depressive disorder" made even less sense to me after I met with the psychiatrist my now-former therapist recommended. When the doctor is hawking drugs like a street seller (Don't you want it? Come on, you know you want it! Take the drugs!), my answer is the same as it is on the street: uh, NO. Keep walking. Always feel better as soon as I turn the corner and get away from people shoving things in my face that I don't need or want to buy. And I really do feel very confident about that decision. There is no doubt in my mind.

The only lingering problem is the early morning hours when I'm not quite awake, but not entirely asleep.

At night, I have real dreams. Some of them are interesting, some are about food or vacations, but they are mostly not about work.

Sometimes I wake up very early, anywhere from 3-6 AM. Sometimes, just before I wake up I figure something out that has been puzzling me with science-related issues like what experiment to do next. That is always satisfying, and I say, Thank you, subconscious! I knew you would solve that for me!

But sometimes it's not productive, and I'd rather not be waking up at 3 AM at all. Exercising to exhaustion usually helps me sleep through the night, but it's not always practical to be tired and sore every day of the week.

Even if it only happens rarely, it's still kind of annoying because I'm more tired the rest of the day than I should be.

I usually try to go back to sleep, and sometimes it works better than others.

Those early-morning hours are the time of day when my brain insists on processing and reminding me of all the things that people have said that had implied meanings; things my adviser should have done but didn't; things that I have no control over; and worrying about the future. Etc.

For example, when some of the students or postdocs in the lab want to complain to me, I'm supposed to be sympathetic, but if I say anything in return about being frustrated with our adviser, they jump all over me like I'm the one who started complaining in the first place.

And I know they aren't sympathetic because they just don't understand. I know they're either too clueless or too terrified to admit that if it's happening to me, it will probably happen to them eventually, maybe already has and they've been trying to pretend like it hasn't. Or they've swallowed their pride or integrity or both, and tried to tell themselves that it will all be worth it.

I know it doesn't occur to them that I feel really isolated and let down by their complete lack of empathy or respect. I know all of that. But it's all I can do to politely listen and just say, "Yeah, that sucks" and stop myself from actually sharing, because I know they'll hold it against me.

So when I wake up at 3 AM, part of my brain is pointing out that I really just want to
say to them: please quit whining to me, I do not want to be your friend
because you're incredibly two-faced, self-centered and insensitive!

About half the time, I get up for a little while and do some yoga or writing or even watching tv, and when I go back to bed half an hour or an hour later, it's fine.

The rest of the time, I just can't make myself get up because I'm very tired, and then I end up having these little episodes of replaying irritating situations in my head and wondering whether I could have handled them differently.

My theory is that if I write about these things in a journal or blog before I go to bed, that might help avoid them popping up on their own and wrecking my sleep. I think it helps.

The thing is, when I'm awake I'm pretty good at noticing my thoughts and identifying them and saying, Okay, yes, that was annoying, but I need to let that go now. It's a conscious effort, though, and when I'm half-asleep apparently I can't quite pull it off.

So this is my message to myself via the internet. Shut up, subconscious! You can talk during the day if you want, but you have to let me sleep! The hours of 11 pm to 7 am are OFF-LIMITS! I will write to get you out of my system if I have to, but then you have got to shut up! Got it? Good.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I guess I'm flattered?

Realized today that the sum total of graduate students at my university who would have liked to work with me for their postdoctoral training has crossed over into "enough to start my own lab, complete with sports team".


Since I can't hire them myself, the conversation always devolves into the same old question that all graduate students ask about choosing a postdoc lab:

Who should I work for?


Of this list of famous guys, who should I NOT work for? What about this guy? Or this guy? (yes, because the famous ones the students choose are usually all guys)

Even if the student is smart enough not to make a list of the Usual Famous A**holes, it's still tough to answer. I can't think of many people who both impress me scientifically and seem to have a clue about mentoring (and aren't either anonymous bloggers, currently unemployed, retired, or all of the above).

And the list has to be further narrowed because most students are already somewhat picky about what they want to do. Without realizing how narrow they've become just during their few short years in grad school, most of them will already tell you: animals or no animals; cold room or no cold room; computers-only or no-computers. And so on. And they don't listen when you tell them the kinds of thesis projects to avoid (hint: certain animals!), so why would they listen about choosing a postdoc lab? Let's be honest, they won't.

The only thing I can do that I think can make an impression is to quiz them about what they really want to do in the long term. Where do they want to live in 10 years when they're done with postdoc and job search (ha ha ha? you think I'm kidding?).

It's amazing to me how many graduate students don't feel they have permission to ask themselves these questions. Even more frightening: it's because they're waiting for their advisers or thesis committee members to ask them these questions!

Yes, some students do the soul-searching part while agonizing over The Dissertation. For too many students, it's the first (only?) time they've been allowed to really take the time to ruminate on where they came from, what they learned, and what they have to show for the time they spent toiling away at the bench.

So here's my tiny piece of advice for today: you don't need permission from your PI or your committee to start figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your scientific career.

Even if all you're sure about right now is that you're being told you have to do a postdoc "no matter what". This is what they tell the students on my campus, sadly, and most of them buy into it as the gospel (even sadder). Because "no matter what" boils down to two kinds of jobs: faculty or R&D industry. There's zero recognition there are other kinds of jobs that don't require a postdoc.

Hint: there are some jobs where you don't have to do a postdoc at all!

And, you DON'T have to wait until you have permission to write your thesis to start figuring that out.

You just need to make a little time for being really honest with yourself, and one other thing-

Talk to people who teach, and people who don't. Talk to people in different kinds of departments, at small schools and big schools. Ask them about their funding sources. Try to picture yourself writing grants. If you were a grant writing maniac, what kind would you be? And the sooner you start, the better.

If you don't know any of these things, you might want to plan to do more than one postdoc, in different kinds of places (pretty common now anyway). How else are you going to do the experiment?

And here's another hint: if you can't face doing more than one postdoc, consider that you might need to take a long vacation after grad school to sort out what you really want to do longer-term. Because nowadays, it's pretty much required that you do a lot of postdoc for a very long time. And if you want to know how much fun that is, read this blog. Or just read the tag on this post.


As for myself, I'm trying to draw encouragement of the "I don't completely suck" variety from wherever I can get it these days.

So if these students really do think my science is cool and that I'd be a great mentor, I'll take that as a HUGE compliment.

Even if I can't actually be that great mentor helping launch them into illustrious careers.

Oh well. Can't help everyone all the time, I suppose.

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