Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Building confidence

In response to a comment from 2nd year physics grad student Becky:

Random question - You have very good confidence in your abilities. Some of your commenters seem to take offense at this, but I think it's a highly useful trait to have as a scientist.

I, on the other hand, feel like a moron everyday. How did you develop such a positive attitude about yourself?

Here are my thoughts on this. But I'm going to start with instructions to mentors, and then move onto instructions for students.

3 things for mentors to do:

1. Encourage small accomplishments early and often

The people who trained me early on showed me how to do everything. They were patient with letting me practice until I got things right, but they supervised me until that happened. And then they said, "Just like that. Good job."


It doesn't take that much to see if the student is following directions and executing steps correctly, but it really helps to give that confirmation and validation that the effort is appreciated and noticed.

2. Give independence in gradually increasing amounts

I was allowed to be pretty independent in the lab pretty early on. I loved this about lab.

I grew up with very little personal freedom and really controlling parents. According to my parents, I was Stupid, I was Lazy, I was Ugly, I was Fat, etc. I was always scrambling trying to please them, which I would later realize was impossible anyway.

In school, I was Student. It was a role we all played. Show up, take notes, maybe ask a question if you're feeling brave. Go home, do homework, pass tests. Check.

In lab, I was suddenly Person. I was treated more like an adult than ever before, and I was amazed. I could come in, do my thing, maybe show someone my results before I left, maybe even get a "Good job!" and then go home. Eventually I would finish whatever I was doing and be taught a new task.

I liked the idea that eventually I would learn enough tasks to be able to work longer and longer without having to ask anyone anything.

I realized later that this was probably pretty unusual. I worked in small labs and big labs, but the people who trained me were, with no exceptions I can think of, both remarkably rigorous and extremely generous with their time.

Nowadays, I don't see this very often. I regularly see poorly trained postdocs training students poorly; I regularly see grad students flailing in the wind because they have no one to ask and no idea what they're doing. It's no wonder grad students lack confidence in that kind of environment.

Trust me when I tell you, the good labs are NOT like that. They're hard to find, though.

3. Quit biting their heads off

Recently, I've been involved in mentoring students in other labs. These students find me, and maybe they don't even tell their advisor I've been helping them out. In every single case, at some point their advisor blows up at them.

The reasons an advisor might yell at a student include but are not limited to:

-advisor is crazy/stressed out and it has nothing to do with the student

-advisor made a mistake but would rather lash out than admit it

-student was flaky (irresponsible and/or passive-aggressive rebellion)

-student was willfully disobedient (some PIs can deal with this when it is justified; some can't no matter what the reason)

-student made a mistake on something important

But it's really only the last one that I want to talk about today.

Students often make one major mistake: they don't always ask for help. This pisses us older folks off, because we interpret it as meaning any or all of the following:

-student is arrogant and doesn't think we know anything worthwhile

-student is embarrassed to be asking, which means we're too intimidating (not a good thing, we blame ourselves when this happens)

-student is so clueless that they don't even know to ask, which means we've been sucky mentors (not a good thing, we blame ourselves when this happens)

Sometimes it's really really hard to keep your calm when a student makes an otherwise totally avoidable mistake. Especially if they could have asked you and didn't, and you're not sure why.

However. In our role as mentors, we have to recognize that Every. Single. Time. you blow up at a student, especially a new student, it is probably our own fault.

I'll say that again. It's YOUR fault, mentors. YOU NEED TO KEEP YOUR CALM. They're just students, they can't really be expected to know as much as you. Get it?

Now, having said that, I've had students who were such bleeping hothouse flowers they couldn't take any kind of criticism. No matter how gently put, if I told them they did something wrong or needed to do something over again, they would just freeze up.

I've tried "Here, you want to avoid that because of XYZ, try it this way." Nope, too sensitive for that.

Or, "Okay, so that's not quite right, next time I'll show you what I want you to do differently." Nope, too sensitive for that too.

You know, they tend to be the straight-A types. I don't know what to do with them. I tend to think science is not the place for people who can't deal with making mistakes and getting honest feedback on their performance.

3 things for students to do:

1. Buck up, cowgirl

If you're not used to criticism, get used to it. Those of us who played on sports teams or did any kind of competitive performing arts are used to being given feedback with few frills attached.

The trick is, and I'm going to say this in all caps, IT'S NOT PERSONAL.

Okay? Get it? It's about your work, it's not about you. We're not saying you're not good enough, we're saying "Here's how you do it."

It's instruction, it's feedback, it's not that we think you're stupid or incapable.

The good mentors know that you can't possibly know these things unless we teach you, show you, and let you practice and ask questions. That's our job. Your job is to keep trying until you get it right. Even if we tell you over and over all the little ways you can improve. We really do want to see you succeed at everything you do. But we understand that research involves an awful lot of falling on your face. All of us were grad students once, too.

2. If you're not sure, Look it up, and Then Ask

Eventually, we want you to get to the point where you can look things up and then decide for yourself whether the answers you find in the literature or via google make any sense or not. Half the time, they're probably wrong. But by the time you're 2 years into grad school, you should be able to look things up on your own without too much effort (thank you, internet).

If for some reason you can't find what you need in the lab protocol book or on the internet, or if what you find there makes no sense, then ask us.

If you don't take notes, or don't try to look things up, or don't ask in an intelligent way ("Hey, I'm trying to do X, I'm not sure how to do Y, would you have time to show me? When would be a good time?") eventually we will get annoyed with your laziness and disrespect and we will treat you the same way in return.

Some of us will give you references instead of helping you because we can't stand talking to disrespectful, ungrateful students.

Others will just plain talk down to you. There are two ways of dealing with those types.

1) Look things up on your own (and find other people to ask)
2) Get upset.

I recommend choice #1. People still talk to me like I'm an idiot on a regular basis. And eventually I realized that those types talk to everyone that way. I realized it's not me, it's them. Use this as your mantra when you're being treated like a moron.

Note: students usually feel like morons when they're treated like morons. It may have nothing whatsoever to do with your actual abilities and everything to do with the people around you being jerks.

3. Whatever you do, don't guess

Nothing pisses us off more than when students are too lazy to either look things up or ask.

The central principle of research, as far as I can tell, is knowing what you know and what you don't knowm, and then figuring out how to fill in what you don't know.

This is true at all levels. PIs regularly make assumptions about what we know, and we're wrong All. The Time. The same is true for students. You might think you know more than you do, but more often than not, students think they know nothing. You are not alone in feeling that way.

I always say it's like learning a foreign language. At the beginning, you work on comprehension. You can read the words, you know what they mean. You hear the words, you know what they mean. But you're shy about speaking the language yourself. You don't have the accent. It's harder to use it than to understand it.

So yeah, it's rough at first, doing your own research independently. You will make mistakes. You will feel uncertain. Probably for a long time. That's OK. Your data should be telling you if you're on the right track.

If nothing is working, it helps to find people to mentor you (not in the vague MentorNet sense of the word). I mean people who are willing to answer your day-to-day questions about how to do things.

Later on, even if my questions were just, "I'm going to try this now, do you think it will work?" knowing full well that their answers might have no correlation with the outcome.

It still gave me more confidence, just to have said out loud "I'm going to try this now." And sometimes I got good advice that way before I made stupid mistakes. As you go along, you'll find the ratio of times they're right: times you're right shifts. At the beginning, they're usually right and you're usually wrong. By the end, you'll be right more often than they are.

I was lucky that I had people like this for most of my career, who were willing to let me bounce ideas off them, and willing to admit it when I was right (though not always).

When I reached the end of grad school and I didn't have anyone to help me in the lab, I realized I didn't need it anymore. Not in that lab, anyway, where I actually knew how to do everything our lab did (!). Sometimes you don't realize this until a new person joins and you start seeing them making all the same mistakes you made.

And if you become a postdoc, or start a new job, or a new project, the cycle starts over again. You ask stupid questions for a while, you feel bad having to ask but now you know it's part of the process. And then you go do some experiments on your own. Training wheels are off.

Eventually, you realize that when you're really doing research, NO ONE KNOWS THE RIGHT ANSWER. There an incredible freedom in that. All you can do, all anyone can do, is come up with a hypothesis, and then test it. But that's not the same as guessing.

You'll know you're there when you can design, execute and interpret experiments on your own. Even if someone tells you, before you even start doing it, that you're doing it all wrong. When you do it anyway, that's confidence. Even if you're not always right. Do the test.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Where's my whistle?

This has been a week of uh-ohs.

The refrain that makes me want to hurl, because I've heard it multiple times from different people:

Uh oh, that gel from your collaborator seems to be completely fake

Luckily, none of these cases have affected me directly (yet?), but I have been thinking again about this question of what do you do when you suspect dishonesty in science.

It also got me thinking about how this is probably also contributing to why I'm not appreciated.

Yes, I've said it before and I'll say it again: I really am that good. But I sometimes wonder if the reason most people don't know real expertise when they see it is because they're willing to cut corners and falsify results, so they just assume I'm doing it too?

I'm tired of being treated like I'm mediocre, when at least I know my results are real, and I've had to watch several cases of liars getting High Impact papers and faculty positions.

But there is nothing I can do about it in the absence of hard proof or a confession that they spiked their samples, that the PI pressured them into producing the expected answers, etc.

I don't know what to do in these situations. It's the rare PI who will not get defensive if you even hint that maybe they didn't notice something fishy about that paper their favorite postdoc published last year.

And yet, I'm watching generation after generation of grad students get completely screwed, being made to feel inept when they can't reproduce data that probably never existed in the first place.

So I have to wonder, seriously, if I know a handful of these phonies are now professors, how many are there total? Are there more now than there were before? Will they ever get caught? Why do we tolerate it? How come nobody seems to know??

I also know a few people who left science during or after grad school when their PIs refused to admit that their new data invalidated the old, obviously massaged evidence published by past postdocs. They said they couldn't win, research wasn't what they thought it was, and went off to do other things.

I worry that unless we come up with a mechanism, maybe some kind of anonymous hotline, all of us trusting, honest souls will end up leaving out of sheer disgust, and there won't be any real science left.

And yet, the idea of being able to report people anonymously means you open up the possibility for false accusations. It's too 1984 for me, kids reporting their parents during the Cultural Revolution in China. It could be a whole new form of nastiness. Would that really be worth it?

Obviously, this is why we don't have The Truthiness Police. But I'm worried that science is hemorrhaging from being undercut by those who make it a game of ambition, while laughing at the noble pursuit of excellence.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Effort expended

One subject I rarely write about on this blog is MrPhD. That is because, as Mr types go, mine is pretty good.

But lately I've been noticing something that makes me wonder, which makes me want to do a pseudo-quantitative analysis (I say pseudo- because it's a blog, and because I don't intend to run any tests of statistical strength).

I've noticed that it's hard to tell if we really share housework equally. I've also noticed that, while this is deeply important to me in my personal life and career management, most of my peers do not share housework equally (or at all).

Several of my male colleagues have a wife at home, and kids. The wife does all the housework in these cases, all the grocery shopping, all the laundry, and packs his lunch. He deals with things like car repairs. This is the very traditional arrangement, and more or less what my parents did.

It seems to work quite well for the men in academia. They seem to have plenty of time and energy to be postdocs, drink with pals and colleagues, publish lots of papers, get faculty positions... and never run out of clean underwear.

Some of my female colleagues have children, and in most cases they still carry slightly more than half the burden, along with a postdoctoral or staff position. The women I know who had children as postdocs have generally failed to get faculty positions, or decided not to apply. Only those who interviewed and got offers first, then became visibly pregnant, have managed to combine a faculty position with children.

Meanwhile, the older female professors who have children seem to have Extraordinary Partners, from what I can tell. But maybe they still carry slightly more than half the housework, cooking, daycare driving, etc. I can't say I know for sure.

And then there are those who are still single, and I'm not sure if that's more or less work than living with someone who does their fair share. Most of the time, I think it's easier to have a partner. We have different skills around the house, and it means slightly less struggling on my part to reach the shower head when it's clogged... but when I think about it, sometimes I do feel like I'm doing more than my fair share.

Yes, you can argue (as MrPhD does) that it's because I care more. I am not a neat-freak, but I am allergic to dust, so I do more housework related to that than I would like to (had I been born allergy-free, oh how I wish).

And you can argue that it's partly just perception. We all feel like we're doing more annoying chores than we want to, therefore it must not be fair.

But I was offended the other day when we went out with some acquaintances, and as sometimes happens, someone our age (whom I didn't know) emphasized how MrPhD should quit his postdoc and get a job that pays more, so I could stay home.

I thought about what I would do if I stayed home. I thought about what I do when I do stay home to work, or when I'm sick. And it's true, I do more cleaning when I stay home. But it's not my first choice of activity! It's not as if I'm out having fun and thinking, "Gosh, I wish I didn't have so many fun things to do so I could have more time to go home and clean instead!" Not even close.

And I can't ever see myself doing what my mother did.

Trapped in the house with small children, my father gone at work all day, she did what any good overachieving perfectionist would do: proceeded to work her butt off to make sure we had the cleanest, prettiest house there ever was. She went to such extremes (and I'll mention that she learned this from my grandmother) as to stretch out and make more elaborate certain cleaning rituals, to ensure that they would fill up all the time in a day. So that she would never have time to be bored, or introspective, and forced to admit that she was miserable.

But back to the neanderthals who were good-naturedly trying to "help" us with their unsolicited advice. This was probably the 3rd or 4th time it has happened. Each time a different guy comes out with these proclamations, and always men our age.

Ladies, we can't just hope that all the old men will die off. There are new ones born every day.

Admittedly, these particular guys are not scientists, and in fact they are in jobs where women are traditionally absent or always secretaries.

But they are also men who seem to know that women can and do work outside the home, even obtain higher degrees and pursue challenging, stimulating careers.

And yet. They still say these things. I hope they enjoy the look on my face, before I start yelling.

It's almost 2010, I have a PhD, and clearly I have been transplanted backwards from some unknown moment in the future when it's perfectly reasonable for me to want robots to do all my cleaning- oh yeah, and the career for which I have spent my entire adulthood training.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Age discrimination? Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?

Found a link to this article in The Scientist by way of a relevant post by Drugmonkey.

But I'm not sure I understand the issue. It just will not compute in my brain. So much of it is so patently ridiculous and wrong, and yet, there are some truths in here.

And perhaps more frightening and importantly, I think this wacknut (to borrow an imaginary word apparently coined by CPP) actually does represent the opinion of a substantial subset of senior faculty, although they aren't always willing to say so in public or without alcohol.

My adviser, for example, sometimes gets in these moods and starts ranting about how ungrateful and unmotivated we junior scientists are. Which always makes me have to leave the room, or risk committing a violent Tarantino-esque act of murder.

So, I'm freely admitting that yes, I am biased the other way. And yet. I can somewhat agree with some of the points this wacknut makes:

1. "A major factor is that contemporary biomedical training programs fail to train young investigators to be scientists."

I agree- sort of.

I do think our training programs suck, and we end up with a lot of misinformed people coming out of them with worthless PhDs and no idea how to work independently, much less lead a team of researchers to do anything innovative. So then we shove them into equally worthless postdocs. Great system!

However, I also recognize that I think of myself as an exception.
And since I also think of myself as representative of my generation, that creates a logical conflict that ultimately nullifies the point.

Clearly, I am biased. I agree that our programs suck, but I think that the best scientists will still manage to rise above the maddening frustration and royal waste of time that we call "training".

However, would we get more "best" scientists (to use the inane Zerhouni terminology) if our programs were better? Absolutely. Would it be a lot more bang for our taxpayer buck? HECK YEAH.

2. "They are trained to be myopic super-technologists, predominantly in areas of molecular biology and molecular technology. They lack the broad holistic background and capacity to integrate molecular events with cellular through organ-systems physiological and pathophysiological principles and relationships. "

Okay so first of all, the second sentence is a run-on. Apparently senior faculty lack the ability to use effective rhetoric.

So let's break this down into pieces.

"myopic super-technologists"

Translation? The author is a Luddite.

The part that's actually true? Graduate students and postdocs are being used as TECHNICIANS. This reinforces the tendency to be good at the details. Why is it like this? Because of the same thing that has been rotting science from the inside out for a long time now: the emphasis on High Impact Publications. It selects for over-specialization and assembly-line productivity from major labs. Which means that in order to keep the machine running, you better be a damn good cog.

I blame the senior scientists for this phenomenon. They're the ones reviewing papers (supposedly) and sitting on search committees that choose to hire only the top cogs.

"to integrate molecular events with cellular through organ-systems physiological and pathophysiological principles and relationships"

To be perfectly honest, I've never met a single scientist who could do this effectively. Because the truth is, to know the molecular events and really understand them, you have to spend a lot of years working on the molecular side. Ditto for the organ-systems and pathophysiology.

The modern way of doing science, Sir, is by COLLABORATION. If anything, Zerhouni's policies encouraged more funding and jobs for MDs, who specialize in the part you're complaining we PhDs don't know: the organ systems and pathophysiology. So we're really not hurting for specialists in these areas. And asking for junior people who can combine them- well that's just ridiculous. Maybe with 48 years of experience, we could do it. But that's what makes us junior. And maybe you're overestimating your amazing intellect. Since you're apparently a Luddite, it stands to reason that I could run circles around you when it comes to the molecular, technology side of what we do. And yet, you're not impressed by that? Why not?

3. "On the other hand, those “most accomplished, broad-thinking, and creative scientists” are penalized in the grant review process because of their experience and success. "

Um, no. That is not logical, either. Let's break this down again.

In my experience, the most broad-thinking, creative scientists are NOT the ones getting the grants. WE, the most broad-thinking, creative scientists, are ghost-writing grants for our "accomplished" and "successful" PIs. WE are not allowed to write our own grants. WE are quitting science because we are NOT ALLOWED or ENCOURAGED to be broad-thinking or creative. WE are supposed to be cogs if we want to be faculty.

If you are being "penalized" for your success, it's because you already have several grants and CAN'T JUSTIFY SUCH ENORMOUS SUMS. Or maybe it's because you can't claim to spend more than the minimum percentage required of your time for you to pretend to be involved in the project, rather than just slapping your name on the papers at the end.


Having said all that, some of the comments were really good. Except for one or two, I agreed with a lot that was said.

But there was this comment: Finally, I would encourage all junior faculties to volunteer to serve on the study section. Instead of complaining about the system, try to work in the system to make it better.

This is ignorant and incorrect.

First of all, postdocs are NOT ALLOWED to serve on study sections for R01s. Typically in your first couple of years as a junior faculty member, you don't have time to travel to do this, but also it is VERY unusual to be ALLOWED to do it. People love to talk about it like it's easy to get a slot on a study section, but it's actually not. You don't get to just sign up.

There was also this:

However, there is a much bigger issue at stake. Many R01s that I have been involved in as a junior investigator, or post-doc rarely complete the aims described therein. There must be penalties for the lead PI for failing to complete an R01 according to the specific aims described.

There must? Why? How?

In some ways, I agree. It should be possible to make progress on a grant, although I don't agree that you should have to "complete" everything you proposed to do. But if you don't get anything done at all, it should be held against you. But many PIs get around this by applying to different institutes, different study sections, and as long as they are publishing something, nobody seems to even check. That is a bit ridiculous.

Also, what is said in the grant as planned experiments are rarely if ever carried out in reality. What is done in the lab on having that R01 funded are elements of that R01 together with a revised structured thinking of the PI to conduct experiments that were not even defined in the original grant application. The R01 is in essence out of date from the time it is submitted to the time the check is in the post. This has to change.

It does? Why? There is no suggestion of how that would work. Science is a moving target.

It's hard to see how this would work without majorly overhauling the system. We would need a system that could handle nearly constant updates.

Personally, I'd love to see a wiki-type science world, where everything is transparent and everyone is always updating what they're doing. But it's hard to envision how that could work in the current system.

Cheaters aren't penalized, and honest workers aren't rewarded. There would have to be a way of compensating scientists for significant contributions without rewarding only those who are most adept at exploiting younger researchers to do the physical labor and technological feats. You know, the things our Esteemed Colleague at the University of Maryland, Baltimore won't acknowledge as difficult or essential to his "success".

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A funny link from CPP

Warning, much offensive profanity to be found here, but useful if you have problems with people who like to write nasty comments anonymously.

Note that this is not something I'm in need of currently, nor am I asking for obnoxious comments. I just think that sometimes CPP's insane ranting stream of &*#$(#)@! is hilarious in a very un-PC way. I always find myself wondering if I met CPP in real life, would I know it was CPP?

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Shameless plug for FSP's latest post

I'm making it an unofficial woman professor day to celebrate this awesome post of FSP's. Go read what she wrote and all the thoughtful comments.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Scientiae: inspiration or desperation?

I'm going to paraphrase this title because the dichotomy reminded me of this, one of my all-time favorite scenes in a movie. From the trailer scene in Kill Bill (dialogue helpfully provided by this site).

Budd: So, which "R" you filled with?

Elle Driver: What?

Budd: They say the number one killer of old people is retirement. People got 'em a job to do, they tend to live a little longer so they can do it. I've always figured warriors and their enemies share the same relationship. So, now you ain't gonna hafta face your enemy on the battlefield no more, which "R" are you filled with: Relief or Regret?

Elle Driver: A little bit of both.

Budd: Bullshit. I'm sure you do feel a little bit of both. But I know damn well you feel one more than you feel the other. The question was, which one?

Elle Driver: Regret.

...and then later, she says:

Elle Driver: [to Budd, as he is dying] Now in these last agonizing minutes of life you have left, let me answer the question you asked earlier more thoroughly. Right at this moment, the biggest "R" I feel is Regret. Regret that maybe the greatest warrior I have ever known, met her end at the hands of a bushwhackin, scrub, alky piece of shit like you. That woman deserved better.


I am definitely feeling a little bit of both.


I definitely have a tendency to self-sabotage, so when I am particularly stressed out I am always looking for escape routes. Lately I feel anxious in the mornings, but if I keep busy I feel pretty good during the day, and I have been getting enough sleep most nights.

I am aware that I tend to always want to have one foot in the career grave, as it were, because I do have a fear of committing to this all-or-nothing lifestyle that seems to be required for junior faculty. So whenever I hear something awful from my now mostly-faculty friends about how stressful their jobs are, or how their personal lives are suffering because they work so much, I think "Well at least I'm glad I won't be dealing with that." Totally unhealthy, but it's how I'm coping right now.

Part of me still wants to run away, and that part is sending off for catalogs related to things I would do if/when. That part gets really excited about envisioning all the other things I could do now that I couldn't do when I was younger.


And of course there is still the little voice that says, "Well even if you did that now, don't you think it will just turn out to be the same as what you've already done? Won't you just end up in the same place, having the same problems with political bullshit, several more years down the road?"

And I try to tell the voice, "Maybe, but it might also be more fun?"

And then, laughter.


At the end of Buffy, there is that scene where they are standing on the edge of the cliff, and talking about how Buffy will finally get to have a normal life. It's like that. Almost impossible to imagine, but very tempting to imagine nonetheless.

And on the other hand, I am still doing experiments and printing out articles to read and pretending like everything is going along just fine. And in a way, it is. But it can't go on like this forever.

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