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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At 4:33 AM, Blogger Alex A said...

Not linked to your post I'm afraid but thought it might be something you enjoy:

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

Regarding favoritism in the lab: We have a fellow in our lab (X) who seems to get most of our advisor's attention. To us, X is lazy, inconsiderate and, at times, a bit demeaning to the rest of us. The biggest problem about this favoritism is how is breeds anger and discontent in the lab. As you stated, though, favoritism is not always best for the favored student. When it came time for X to write his first paper, our advisor pretty much wrote it for him. This upset all the rest of us, but eventually I came to realize what a disservice our advisor did for X. Yes, X got a paper out quickly, but he didn't learn anything about paper writing. When it came my turn, I spent 2 months writing my paper. Yes, my advisor played a significant role by editing it liberally, but the first draft of every section came from me. And now my confidence and skills are much improved compared to my favored peer.

Regarding choosing advisors/students based on personality over talent. I actually think this is ok. A good working relationship between advisor/student and among peers is more likely to bring success than stocking a lab full of bright students who constantly butt heads. Take student X again. My advisor had in mind a great project that would have required a collaboration between myself and X, but even my advisor recognized that it would never work because X is simply not capable of working with others. I actually worked up the nerve to tell my advisor how deeply disappointed I am with how X has turned out. X and I are the only two physical science students in our lab, and his lack of willingness to collaborate really leaves me without a true peer in the lab. Despite the obvious favoritism our advisor has shown X, he admitted to me during this conversation that he wouldn't make the mistake of hiring another student so unwilling to interact and collaborate with other students in lab, regardless of how good his/her credentials may seem.

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or choose not to take a talented student because the existing lab members don't like this person socially.

If you write it like that it sounds like an EVIL thing to do, but I really believe that people should 'fit' into the lab (that goes for any working environment). You may put the science first, but I would hate to work in a place where the social interaction is not a factor that is taken into account.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger yolio said...

I have got to agree, the role of friendship is a major perpetuator of cultural homogeneity in science. The dynamic is not always totally malevolent. Sometimes the person who is "different" is well liked and/or admired. But this does not mean that their colleagues are at ease with them. Even small differences in social comfort level can translate into big professional differences in professional opportunities.

I think the basic point that FSP makes is ok, some students turn out to be better colleagues than others. But I think we all need to think closely about who gets excluded and why.

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous outlaw josey wales said...

Life is unfair. People have favorites, and they tend to reward those more than others. This is the world as it is. There is no chance of things becoming objective and meritocratic to the extent you wish them to be.

When are you done with your post doc?

By the way, my wife was treated rather poorly by her male chauvinist adviser during her PhD. No one on the committee stuck up for her. She got all her own funding, and ran her own project, which was not based on anything this adviser did or suggested. She's published a lot, and her work has been recognized by colleagues in the field. Oh, did I mention she was in her 3rd trimester during the time her adviser was acting up?

The point is that other women have faced as much hardship as you have, ostensibly because they were female, but they have not reacted like you.

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Kea said...

Sigh. You have expressed this so well. I wish there was a chance of a women's network in my field, but there are not enough women for that.

I am 42 and they still keep telling me that 'I'm no good at taking advice'. You know the kind of advice I mean ... given with that oh so condescending air, expecting your gratitude for the moment they have taken to share their superior wisdom with you.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Alex- thanks!

Inter Intro-

I think the whole "disservice to the favored" thing is a myth. Because these people can usually continue to get other people to do their work for them, sometimes indefinitely throughout the rest of their career.

It can give them huge advantages they don't deserve, especially since in my experience most PIs like their own writing better than they like editing (or, as in FSP's case, waiting patiently for a student or postdoc to construct a draft). One of my "peers" (not in my lab, thankfully) got top-notch paper by acting basically as a technician. The project was conceived by the PI, and the paper was written entirely by the PI. Because it ended up in a top-notch journal, my "peer" got a faculty position for which he is absolutely not qualified. And yet, nobody seems to have figured that out! Even after interviewing him! It's incredible.

I also disagree somewhat re: personality, but I think it's a matter of degree. The thing is, sometimes the schmoozers who all get along will end up failing out, while the quiet/anti-social ones are extremely productive, even if they do everything completely independently. Or, the quiet ones open up and turn out to be extremely cool people who were just really shy when they started. I think it's ridiculous to assume you can get to know someone well enough in the space of a 1-day interview (e.g. for postdocs) or even a 6-week rotation (grad students). So that's why I would put personality farther down the list than competence. The real problem in science is that most people judge "competence" based on paper credentials and not on actual aptitude or skills.

outlaw josey wales-

Give your wife some time. I suspect she has not faced anywhere near as much hardship as I have. You both have a lot to learn still. And maybe you should lighten up a little and see that you should BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD. Being as cynical as you are gets us all nowhere.

Kea- I would not care about the condescending tone so much if they were actually right occasionally. What kills me is that I usually do follow the advice just for the sake of avoiding that criticism, but it wastes time because they're wrong more than half the time (and maybe even 90% of the time).

At 5:39 AM, Blogger daisy mae said...

ugh. we have our own 'student x' - a postdoc from a nobel lab (who took 10 years off from science and has 4 papers to his publishing record) and not only is he the favourite, he sabotages the work of others in the lab in a very underhanded way, and reaps the glory of going to international conferences on the PI's dime (even though he doesn't have enough data for a poster after a year in the lab).

however, i think that the 'friendship' thing occurs across fields (right or wrong) and while i don't agree with it, it seems to be one of those situations where you've got to be in a position of power before you can do a damn thing about it.

before deciding to work for my adviser, i met with him and flat out told him 'i don't need to like you, and you don't need to like me, but at the end of the day i need to be able to respect you and your decisions, and i need to know that you respect mine'. so far things have worked out fairly well. i also know my adviser isn't always consistent, so i padded my committee with PIs with whom i have great relationships with, and who are completely biased in my favor.

At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The point is that other women have faced as much hardship as you have, ostensibly because they were female, but they have not reacted like you."

And what would this "reaction" be? Speaking out against it and telling it like it is? Or would you prefer that all women duck their heads and quietly take it?

At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous Professor said...

@Interdisciplinary Introspective:

Being "on the other side", I would recommend you to check if indeed X is a favorite of the advisor, or if it is the research topic that is the favorite of the advisor.

I have written a paper from scratch for a student of mine. Call her Y. I endlessly supply Y with ideas. She is ridiculously unproductive in reality. On paper, Y in now on track for writing a major journal article. In reality, Y is a major pain to work with. I keep bugging her to show up in the lab (Y is constantly "working from home"). Last week I asked her to produce a draft but "she did not have time to finish it": of course, she went on a trip with her beau, and posted photos from the trip on her blog. Too bad that we are getting too close to the deadline for submitting the paper... And yes, I had to start writing, in order to save the project.

Meanwhile, my other students are coming up with ideas of their own, and they keep asking me whether I had time to read their drafts and give them feedback.

I am pretty sure they think that Y is my favorite. Quite the opposite.

Why do I do that? Because I know that if I do not help Y, the project will not go anywhere. For my favorite students, I know that even by themselves they will do great. Because they had to write themselves, they now know how to write. They know how to design experiments. They just need me as a sounding board to test the validity of their research questions.

And they are my real favorites. Y is not.


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