Saturday, December 19, 2009

could I post more often?

Yeah, probably. Lately I am feeling busy, disorganized, stressed out, and generally torn about what is bloggable and what is not.

It takes a lot of energy to figure out how to edit things to be instructive but not recognizable. I just haven't had the time or energy to do it yet.

So unless I get comments that inspire me, or an idea from someone else's blog discussions, it's hard to know what to write about (since I feel like none of my really recent material is safe to discuss at all right now).

Suffice it to say, I am still gathering material for my someday auto-blog-ography.

The good news is, I am finally getting to go back to a project that had been on hold for a long time, and I am having fun with that.

It is always nice to sink your teeth into a topic that excited you before, and realize that it's still really interesting. And now I have a different perspective, because it has been so long, I have the advantage of having gotten out of the trees and looking back at what I thought was the forest then vs. how the forest looks now. It's easy to get bogged down when you're in the thick of it.

I also realized recently again just how starved I have been for scientific interaction. It's funny how sometimes you don't notice until somebody asks you what seems like an almost irrelevant question. But it's that whole forest-trees problem. I'm really thankful that once in a while, I get to talk to other people who just ask questions. Because it usually gives me ideas for experiments to do. Which is usually where I get to make progress- getting a result from an experiment and then running with what that implies.

So yeah, I could blog more often, but I'd really rather not. If it were up to me, I'd do experiments all the time.

If it were up to me, equipment would be available 24-7 when I need it, and I wouldn't have to work around other people's schedules or children's schedules or buildings being locked on the weekends or holidays. I'd have unlimited reagent supplies and staff who replaced things BEFORE we ran out, and who made sure things got fixed so I wouldn't have to find the stuff broken and call the repair companies myself all the time.

Instead, I waste a lot of my energy on stuff like that, and I only blog when I'm really upset in a way that I think is worth mentioning.

So when you don't hear from me, you can assume things are either going really badly, or really well. Maybe both.

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At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...

Glad to hear you still love love love experiments. Which got me thinking. What I like about academia is everything but the hands-on benchwork. If I'm not going to be a PI i'll be out of here.
Have you ever considered becoming a tech or research associate? You'll have less of the stuff you hate and can dig dig dig into science. And those people are very very valuable, you'd just have to make sure you'd end up in a place where your knowledge and background is valued.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Honestly, I'm too much of a rebel to be a good tech. I have to be in charge of my own work.

I am very good at following instructions, but I will not follow them blindly and I always question "authority".

I did the student trainee thing long enough to know that the part I found exciting was asking NEW questions, not just pipetting through protocols. I get very bored with the technician schtick very quickly. And I've seen enough smart people stuck in technician-end jobs as adults who regretted not going for the PhD and having their own labs. If I'm going to be bitter, at least I can say I tried.

And, let me reiterate that I NEVER said I hated the rest of the work- reading, writing, presenting, networking, managing, etc.. I like it just as much. That's why I wanted this as my job. A little bit of everything is exactly what I was looking for.

What I HATE is being treated as a subordinate who is by default assumed to be stupid just because I look younger or more female or because I'm newer or just because I don't have a certain job title.

Being a student sucked for that reason, but my lab was full of rebels and I found other students who felt the same way- baffled at how fucked up, inefficient and unfair it all was.

Being a postdoc is even worse, because it's even more of a farce.

You have your degree, you're supposedly "independent"- except you're not.

The majority of advisors are one of two kinds: a) totally overbearing, b) totally unhelpful/absent. I think the advisors who manage to be helpful but not controlling are in the minority.

So then you're really stuck, because if you wanted an overbearing advisor, you might as well have been a tech.

But then when you become a postdoc you learn that there are some areas where you can't help yourself (funding eligibility is the one example that pisses me off the most lately). If your advisor is of the unhelpful kind, you can't do it, and nobody else is going to step up and help you, either.

I do NOT treat people this way. As far as I'm concerned, I don't care if you have a degree or how old you are. If you're smart and you do your job, I respect that, and I will try to help you.

If you're not smart or you don't even try to do your job, I don't care who you are, it's going to piss me off.

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPhD I agree totally on the two types of advisors - overbearing, or unhelpful/apathetic.

I've had exactly both kinds during my way-too-long postdoctoral career. And now I've been pushed out of science and am unemployed and trying to find another career/job. I see other less experienced and less qualified postdocs around me who lucked out with better advisors and they've gone on to actually have careers (mediocre careers, but still better than no career at all), meanwhile I've been pushed out because my advisors made it impossible for me to continue. (sure I could try with yet another postdoc advisor, but I'm really getting too old to be playing these games over and over again and taking chances with another PI only to be back at square one after another few more years because that's how long it takes whenever you start over in a new postdoc)

It's funny because when you are with one kind of advisor, you think the other kind would be at least a bit better. Then you get the other kind and you find it's just as bad but in a totally different way.

It's just never ceases to amaze me how infinite are the number of ways for advisors to ruin their postdocs' chances of success and make them leave science.

That said, I think I prefer the unhelpful/apathetic kind of advisor just slightly to the overbearing kind. both can and will kill your career in their own unique ways, but the apathetic advisor causes less day-to-day, hour-to-hour conflict. Yes with the unhelpful advisor you are totally on your own to sink or swim without any institutional backing so no one will take you seriously in your attempts to prove yourself or do anything for yourself (and you have to do it yourself since you advisor will not help you). This kind of advisor will not do anything for you at all no matter how much you do for them over and over. And because of the system being set up with this unspoken rule that junior scientists being must endorsed by senior established scientists, if you are an early-career scientist entirely on your own without any senior person rooting for you, you might as well not exist because you will be shut out of everything you need to get a job let alone do your job. I've run into this issue with funding a million times over the years.

My advisor would not lift a finger to keep me funded (meaning to keep me employed let alone to get a real job!) so I took the initiative to try and get funding on my own...I came up with new ideas, got the preliminary data, talked with grant monitors to shape the program and even the RFPs, set up collaborations, wrote the damn proposals...only to be finally told that since I'm not a real person (since I'm not the PI) I need the PI to make an official commitment to the grant proposals, which he woudln't do because he didn't care....I found all kinds of grant mechanisms to try, and searched and found (on my own) all kinds of things that could be exploited as loopholes to allow me to pursue those funding mechanisms, and always in the end I was told I was not a 'real person' and they need to talk to my mommy or daddy i.e. my PI. And then my PI would say NO to all of them. So in the end when my funding ended I was out of a job and have been ever since.

That said, I think it was even worse when I worked for an overbearing PI during my first postdoc. That was plain insulting to my senses to be treated like a second class citizen so blatantly. At least my unhelpful/apathetic PI didn't treat me as much like a second-class citizen, because he just didn't care enough that he would 'treat' me in any way at all! This is why I left science, and I get bitter when I see less qualified and less experienced people - who have never known even a fraction of the difficulty I faced, and who are still so blissfully ignorant about how the system works - be handed jobs and promotions for being mediocre but simply because their postdoc advisors were friendlier and helpful to them.

sorry for the rant - merry xmas!

At 7:49 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

If experiments are more exciting than blogging, that could be a good thing. I've not been regularly blogging either, and although I have missed it, I realized that I wasn't blogging frequently because I was busy kicking ass at work, hanging out with N.A., and hosting friends at the new house. Not a bad trade.

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 3:16, I could have written this myself, since my story is almost identical. I'm really glad you wrote it because it makes me feel a lot less alone. Thank you.

This is the kind of stuff I wish NIH were reading (NIH ARE YOU LISTENING??????????).

UR, yeah. I really have an adoration/avoidance relationship with blogging. Most of the time, I'd rather have a life, but I do miss the blog community of familiar "faces". And I swear everything I needed to learn but didn't get from my advisors, I got from blogs. Well, almost everything anyway.

My internal debate about whether and when to stop blogging or evolve/move my blog somewhere else continues at a low but insistent level. I'm going to have to come up with a clever solution if I want to blog what's really going on, but right now I can't think how to do that.

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 3:16, your story is like mine too. I've had 2 really shitty "tor"mentors, for the different reasons you mentioned. I'm hanging on by my fingernails, barely. Hugs.

At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi I'm the Anon at 3:16

Well MsPhD and jc, if you guys are still hanging in there (even if barely by your fingernails), you're still more successful than I was! don't give up, don't let them push you out the way they pushed me out!!!

I realize that crap like this goes on in other professions, but what gets me about academia in particular is that there are relatively so few options, it's not you can just "try a different employer" if your present one is really toxic, not without a lot of upheaval and at a steep cost (both geographic and professional upheaval). Thus it's like you don't get that many chances to succeed even if you do have what it takes, and missteps and mistakes in choice of postdoc advisor can cause irreparable damage to one's career.

Well I'm going to try and find a different career path where it's harder for one person to ruin your entire career without even trying. good luck to you!

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 3:16, I think that's the point. The way it's set up right now, the whole thing is in your advisor's hands, and they're not even trying. In my case, my advisors ACTIVELY got in my way.

Karma, karma, karma. That's all I can hope for at this point.

The other thing you didn't mention, aside from geographic and professional upheaval, but which I blog about a lot is, the emotional and psychological toll it takes. It's easy for people who have never been through it to tell you to "just find another lab" but they don't understand how much damage a TORmentor can do to your self-esteem, hopes, dreams and energy level. It's amazing how stressful it can be to a) work with these people, b) get screwed over by them, c) finally give up/run away/escape/get kicked out. Nobody seems to realize that it's just HISTORY REPEATING. Senior women former-scientists, in moments of honesty, will tell you these kinds of things happened to all of them. 40 years ago.

The only difference now that I can see is that it happens to men, too (particularly international postdocs from asian countries).

Sometimes I think science is so completely broken. It's only as good as the weakest link- and these kinds of stories (we have 3 right here, so if only 10% of readers actually comment, that's at least 300 people who read this blog who know someone this kind of thing has happened to).


At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...


(forgive my negative tone in the following- I mean no disrespect).

You know exactly why you are where you are and why science won;t be fixed.

Science won't be fixed in the US because we (academic postdocs) aren't the reason for science investment.

The real reason is very simple: to create a massive oversupply of cheap, highly trained personnel who will leave poorly paid and unstable careers, and feed into the employee chain without the need for placing a premium on their skills.

If they can't do it by ramming up the number of postdocs or PhD students in the US, they will do it by the H1B route.

the PI's won't ever speak out for you. the system benefits them.

And the tragedy is that, if you or I ever actually make it to PI, our care factor about these issues that you blog and comment on and I'm obsessed with will drop to zero overnight.

Because, once you are a new faculty member, you need all the cheap, easy-to-hire-and-fire labour you can get.

You'll become part of the problem.

In the continuing tragedy of your quest for a PI position have you given any thought to what happens if you ever get a PI position?

Honestly, I can't see you blogging about "oh, my poor postdocs, they're having a hard time surviving on the wages I'm paying, and their experiments aren't working out like I planned...?".

It'll be more like, "Hey, I made it. put up or shut up". Seriously, you will have two years, maybe three, to make a big breakthrough and if you don't push your people you are toast. You, your postdocs and students. Out of your job at the end of your R01.

That's why Dr apathetic and Dr overbearing are out there. Dr gives-a-s__t is toast in this kind of environment.

You will ruin lives. You will make mistakes and people will pay for them with their careers. People who work for you will ask the wrong (read: not popular enough) questions and fail.

Your only hope of success is to do what every other PI does: grab as many postdocs as you can, chain them to the bench, and set them digging until one of them strikes gold.

After all, nobody is keeping track of the failures and blind alleys. Nobody in charge reads these blogs. Nobody makes headlines for patrolling the boundaries of type-II errors for an entire career. Nobody cares what happens to the legions of postdocs who come and go working on these problems. And once you become a PI, this is what you will believe; you won't have time for anything else.

We live in a culture where success is easily quantified and evaluated in citations, N/S/C publications, and press releases. You just need one success story every couple years to keep your lab funded.

Trust me. You stay in science, you will become part of the problem and no longer a part of the solution.

Come on now. Stop pipetting and look ahead for five minutes at the system you are working in and will eventually support. Do you really want to do that to yourself?

No, trust me, it will definitely happen, unless you really want to become a PI so badly you will fracture yourself into a socially aware underdog at night and ruthelessly efficient PI at night (the very definition of corporate psychopath).

Perhaps 2010 is the year we stop blogging about the problem and start organizing solutions.

Or, we could go back to running Westerns and mouth off online in forums like this while they transfer.

Beats helping out the next generation, after all.

Merry christmas to you!

PS, Crucially, we need data, not anecdotal evidence. We need to track 'failed postdocs' in a systemic manner and link them to the people who train them. Anyone out there wants to be a part of the solution should start doing that.

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

I hear ya. The last few months, so many ridiculous (but far too identifying) events have occurred at work. I wish I could blog 'em for the entertainment of the masses, but, like I said, it would be too revealing.

At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I for one am glad to hear that some things are moving along okay over there (even if they aren't enough, but then, they never are).

If you're interested in comments to inspire you to a blogpost, I would love to hear your responses to this fun little questionnaire/survey.



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