Saturday, January 24, 2009

Go for broke

I've been extremely busy lately and not blogging at all, but no one seems too upset (thanks for being patient with me!).

However, Ambivalent Academic sent me this link to a post about being a grad student in a lab that is rapidly running out of money.

This is a topic I know from first-hand experience. I also know a lot of grad students and postdocs in the same boat right now, so I thought I would write a longer response here than I could do on AA's blog comment list. Especially since I couldn't sleep anyway and decided that blogging is usually calming and cathartic. Right?

My thesis lab went broke when I was about halfway through grad school. I didn't know how much more I needed to do, or what it would cost, much less how much longer it would take.

I was in a relatively good situation when this happened, but I didn't know that then. My grad school had (or found) enough money to pay my salary and health benefits, while my advisor made a half-hearted stab at writing more grants. I don't remember if any of them were funded, but we were in enough of a financial hole that it would have taken more than one grant to make much difference in my daily life (unless the school had decided to not pay me).

However, it did affect other things that were supposed to be part of my "training." For example, the department was supposedly going to cover 1 trip to a meeting per year for each student. Unlike every other student in the program, I was never able to take any trips.

[aside: this shows how 'departments' actually pay for things, grad students! Your PI is probably paying into a shared pot!]

But before you say oh boo hoo, as I know some of you will do, let me point out that the lack of traveling seriously hurt my ability to apply for postdoc positions intelligently (which, take it how you will, led inexorably to the existence of this blog!).

Anyway so back in grad school when this happened, the dean gave me some good advice. He told me to put my nose to the grindstone. So I did. That was good for a variety of reasons I won't go into here. It was also bad in some ways I regret more now than I did then. But mostly it was good, and I'm not sure my thesis would have turned out the way it did if I hadn't. I think of my thesis as a solid piece of work, and it's at least partly due to that grindstone-on-nose effect.

I think the key thing was that I was so determined to graduate and show those fuckers in my department that I could do it on the cheap, that I ended up convincing not just them but also myself. It was sort of a distraction, almost like an extra challenge that makes it into an even better story, to figure out how to do everything almost for free.

I did a lot of borrowing, and a lot of begging. I got really really good at asking for things from strangers, and from other students. And everyone was really generous about sharing. I learned that sometimes it's better to say which lab you're from, and sometimes you're better off just being the student from down the hall. I learned that it's really important how you ask, because sometimes you think you need something and nobody has it, but they have a much cheaper and better way of doing it, and they're happy to teach you. I learned a lot of random tricks this way.

And when I was really desperate, I got really good at asking for things from labs in the middle of the night... when there was no one around to ask. I never took anything irreplaceable or anything that looked like it was currently being used, but I wasn't shy about getting what I needed from labs that I knew could afford to support my research habit.

I'm not saying that's what you should have to do. But it is one way to get through, get shit done, and get out of there.

I think the key in these situations is to not panic, as ridiculous as that sounds right now. But the truth is, a LOT of labs have been operating in the red far too much of the time, and you're not alone.

Case in point: one of the labs I've worked with as a postdoc went broke a few years ago. The PI got rid of most of the people in the lab and basically covered the bare minimum of PI ass (but not anyone else's).

The favorites got their papers published; the un-favorites got treated even worse than they would have otherwise. In one really disgusting example, the PI gave an unpublished mouse project away to another lab, who then proceeded to publish a bunch of papers on it. The grad student who had done all the work is not first author on any of the papers, but the PI still gets to list them on grant renewal applications...

And fast-forward a few years, guess what? The PI eventually got more grants funded and an almost entirely new crop of slaves, er I mean, postdocs. But in the meantime, most of the people I knew there either quit science or left for greener (literally) labs.

In some ways, learning to deal with this kind of stress is EXACTLY what research these days is about. Doing it for the first time as grad student is almost a blessing, because believe me, you're going to have to do it again as a postdoc, and again and again and again and AGAIN as a PI.

Lots of PIs at my university run into funding problems - surprise! - a few times a year, because of the way the budgets are done here. Mouse costs go up by $1/cage/day, and nobody finds out for a while. Guess what that does to your planning? It's a fucking nightmare.

And there are always unforseen costs. Lots of PIs don't want to pay for maintenance contracts, because they're so expensive and you don't always need them. But when you need them, boy will you regret it! Equipment breaks down, or there are floods from the floor upstairs, and projects fall behind for months during the repairs... then the preliminary data for the next grant is delayed, not to mention everyone's papers... and in this climate, nobody can afford to be publishing a year or two late.

Anyway, so back to my story about what I did. I did two things with regard to publishing.

First, I sent my "big" paper to a slightly lower journal than I would have if my advisor had been up to the task of advising. And it got accepted faster than it would have at a "bigger" journal.

You can see the pros and cons of this. The cons are obvious. It didn't have the kind of impact on the field or my CV that it could have had (emphasis on the CV).

The pros are more numerous but less obvious. My paper got out; it got cited actually a fair amount because it was still in a pretty good journal; I had it on my CV; I got a postdoc fellowship that I wouldn't have gotten if I had no publications; I got interviews for postdoc positions based at least partly on that; my thesis was easier to write because the papers were all published.

Which brings me to my next point, which is the opposite. As they say in the fishing business, I cut bait.

I had other projects I wanted to do before I left. They were things I had been doing on the side, longer-term things that were finally starting to make sense and were really exciting to me.

But I took a hard look at the timing and I stopped them cold. I had to. I wrote my papers and thesis. There were more experiments I could have done to make my last "big" paper into a potentially "bigger" paper, but I didn't do them because I knew I had to get out.

In addition to borrowing in case of emergency, my thesis committee members let me do experiments in their labs, and they gave me anything I needed that we didn't have. This only works if your thesis committee members are not also broke, but it's worth looking into. Maybe another PI would even be willing to split your salary (e.g. if you're doing a collaboration?). Your department might not be able to pay you, but do you know people in other departments who can help cut your costs?

My current PI, for example, is always more likely to come up with ways to pay us and our health coverage if we're saving money or helping the lab out in other ways.

Maybe you can cut a deal with your advisor this way. PIs love to act like they're running the whole show when things are going well, but when things are not good, suddenly you're part of a close, dysfunctional family "where everyone pulls some of the weight". This would be a time when offering to help your PI with his/her grants would not be uncalled for. Even if all you do is copy-editing. You might even be able to secretly help by asking to write an aim as part of your "training."

I also applied far and wide for postdoc positions and did phone interviews. This helped me figure out what I wanted to do next. But that's a blog topic for a different day.

My point being, I came up with an exit plan. I made sure my advisor knew that recommendation letters were expected, where to send them, and ASAP.

If there's one thing I think I could have done better, obviously it was choosing my postdoc lab. But in terms of the science, my first postdoc lab was great. But I do think that being in a hurry to get out put more pressure on me to find a lab faster, so I didn't have as much time to think about my options from a creative state of mind.

Having said that, I have another friend whose lab also went broke in her last year of grad school. She ended up working in her thesis lab for free for two months to finish her last paper. And now all her recommendation letters, from everyone on her committee and probably even her stingy advisor, say how she made this heroic effort and got the paper published.

I don't recommend taking this route, for a variety of reasons, but if you can keep it to a minimum, it is often possible to cut your personal expenses down (or run up credit card debt) enough to get by for 4-8 weeks, even on a grad student salary with essentially no savings.

She stayed at friends' houses, it was very poetic, the sort of thing that humanities folks are probably more familiar with. Artists and cinematographers do this sort of thing all the time. It's just that scientists tend to think our work should be, I don't know, more valued by society or something, and that our PhDs should mean some guarantee of getting paid.

Newsflash: society doesn't really value what we do, and our PhDs are not exactly guarantees.

I actually think her PI could have paid her salary out of his personal pocket, and the only reason I can see for not doing this is because there were others in the lab at the time who also had papers to finish, and he couldn't afford to pay everyone that way.

But I maintain that she might have been able to negotiate with him for some money if she hadn't let on that she was willing to work for free. Truthfully, he needed that paper at least as much as she did, and he would have found a way to pay her if he had to.

You might also be eligible to apply for your own money. I wasn't eligible for any senior grad student fellowships, but I applied for postdoc fellowships before I actually started in my postdoc lab.

Keep in mind, there are lots of awesome young PIs out there who need postdocs, and lots of senior PIs telling their grad students to go work for someone established and famous. I'm still not convinced this is good advice for anyone, but especially now.

Truthfully, your best bet right now for getting a postdoc position fast and paid for is to join up with someone young who is trying to get their new lab off the ground. They all have startup money, you see, which is even more valuable in times like these.

Another thing you might consider: go for a shorter time. Maybe 1-2 years to learn specific techniques. This is what the postdoc "training" time used to be for. It's also a lot easier for a PI to envision where to get salary for 1-2 years than for 6-7 years.

And then if it works out, you can apply for fellowships, and stay there. If not, you've had plenty of time to finish publishing your thesis papers, and find a second postdoc.

Many PIs will let you go back to your thesis lab and finish off your last paper if you need to go for a week (or a few) to finish up experiments to address reviewers' comments. So if you can line up a postdoc ahead of time, you don't necessarily have to do things in the obvious order. Sometimes it goes

paper --> thesis --> postdoc position --> fellowship applications

and sometimes it goes

postdoc position --> fellowship applications --> thesis --> leftover papers now in press

And that, my dear blog readers, is a 2-hour long post. Whew. I guess I really have a lot to say on the topic! Or maybe I was just in blog withdrawal. I think I write longer posts in the middle of the night....

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

One-second plea to the universe

Where is my driver's license? I don't have time to look for it right now! If you could please send it back to me, that would be great.




Monday, January 12, 2009

One-second grammar rant.

Commas, people. Learn them, use them, and stop writing these ridiculous fucking long sentences with no commas. Just, stop.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Reponse to comments saying "It's Not Sexism" and "Street Smarts Aren't Learned" (among other things)

Anon 8:02 wrote:

The only thing I disagree completely with is your assumption that men are specifically trained by other men to have "street smarts".

Okay, I apparently wrote this wrong, or you haven't read much of my thoughts on mentoring.

I think most mentoring is passive. Many mentors don't realize they're giving it, unless they're specifically taught to, and mentees don't realize they've gotten mentored until later.

Therefore, I would agree that men don't always specifically train other men. But that's not what I meant (although it might have been what I wrote, it was 3 AM after all!).

What I mean is, men tend to have more sharing interactions, even if they're not deliberately nurturing.

You know how this works. You go out for beers with the guys, and share war stories, don't you?

You might even play tennis with your advisor, or your wife's advisor. Inevitably during the chit-chat you talk about how your papers are coming along, etc. THAT'S MENTORING.

And those little decisions about where to send your paper? That's at least as much street smarts as it is science.

So, think on that a little and write back to tell us if you still disagree.


You're right. Being known is good. In my case, blogging pseudononymously as I do (and controversially!), I don't think I want this being known to cross over to that being known. But you're right, that is good advice to all who are not doing it already.

Like people who have attained First Name Only status. There was a guy where I went to school, let's call him Bob. Everybody knew Bob. They knew where to find him, and they knew when he would be able to solve their problem with a particularly hairy thingamajig. Bob was well known.

However, Bob did not get a job. Bob was known, but he lacked street smarts. So I'm not sure if that's necessarily the same thing.

I think it's easier to be known for scientific skill than it is to convert that currency into political power. Don't you think that's the trick? Not just being known, but knowing how to leverage it?

For example, I have no idea how the YFS brand could help me get a job. But I wonder sometimes if there were a way that it could.

Dr. J&H wrote:

Some departments have a few successful female faculty, which helps promote general equality of treatment; and some departments are good about selecting faculty (both M and F) who will try to mentor trainees effectively (again, both M and F).

These discussions make me wish I could easily insert ye olde symbols in place of M and F, but we'll use it until someone tells me how to do that in HTML without it being too much of a PITA.

I gotta say, where I went to school we had women but they SUCKED at mentoring. SUCKED. They were the pull-the-ladder-up-behind-you types.

Re: departments good at selecting faculty who will mentor both genders... these must be departments with more turnover than the ones I've been working in.

Mine are mostly all dominated by older folks who aren't leaving until they're cold and dead, and they have no intention of factoring that kind of criteria into their faculty candidate decisions.

But it's nice to think there might be departments that do (can I work there??? Got any openings??).

PiT wrote:

I also agree with your notion of street smarts but not so much that there is a gender bias towards males.

Well, that was sort of the point of the post. It's a hypothesis.

I think it's well established that historically, this kind of life skill was taught to boys by their families as they were growing up. And maybe girls who had brothers (did you?) got more of this than girls who didn't (I didn't).

Based on my reading, I'm sure this is partly generational and partly a cultural issue. In my family, none of the women ever worked more than briefly outside the home, so there wasn't any precedent for teaching daughters about the ways of the working world (but it was traditional for sons).

So I've had to figure everything out for myself. I couldn't rely on my parents to advise me after I got out of traditional go-to-class school.

In this analogy, academia has to function like a family to teach the academia-specific street smarts skills (say that five times fast!).

But I think the tradition holds that, because for a long time it was all men, it was traditional to treat men as if it was a foregone conclusion that they would be going on to have full-time jobs (let's call them Careers, shall we?).

But even now, there is still quite a lot of heated discussion about what to do with all these women who want to have children. A scarily high number of PIs still think that hiring women for postdoc positions is inherently risky, "because you never know if they're going to get pregnant." And then they complain about how day care is insufficient, but they aren't going to do anything about it.

Their solution is to hire more men instead.

My point being that many PIs (even women) are more invested in the careers of their male postdocs, because they assume (based on their observations) that it's less risky than mentoring women.

I've had both male and female PIs tell me they're angry with women in their labs for having children, because they think it means they aren't serious about their careers.

I wasted all that time and energy on her
, they say.

So while I might not have evidence that men are mentored more or more effectively, I propose that all the signs are there.

The enthusiasm for mentoring men is perhaps without detraction, whereas the enthusiasm for mentoring women is often shaky. And often for reasons that have nothing to do with reality (Are you seriously telling me you might not mentor me effectively because you're afraid I might decide to have kids someday? Seriously?).

The best analogy I can think of is parents who could afford to get their kids braces, which help prevent future dental problems of all kinds. But they rationalize not doing it, because they say, this kid is never going to be an actress. She doesn't need it.

What? That's not logical. It's a choice rationalized after the fact, and it makes no sense.

In academia, many PIs choose, however passively, not to mentor their women "trainees." And then they rationalize after the fact via the Just-World Fallacy that they didn't do anything wrong because she didn't deserve it anyway.

Anon 12:46,

LOL. There are still secret bathroom meetings in some departments!

a physicist wrote:

As a male PI -- any suggestions for how to improve this with my own lab group? Other than just being aware that this is a general problem?

I'm touched that you'd even ask.

Well, let's start by working with the assumption that street smarts CAN be learned (the rest of you who wrote otherwise- hush up and read your vegetables!).

Here's what I think has helped me get this far:

1. Don't shelter your trainees from the realities of academia.

I know, I know, you have to swear to shelter them when you get your faculty position, but bear with me and consider breaking this rule. Frequently and with aplomb.

A lot of street smarts in academia is just knowing how things work. Departmental structure. Power structure. Points of order - who has to sign off on what, and how to deal with that person. How much things cost. How you make decisions about what to buy and what not to buy. How you choose who to hire.

This is of benefit to you, too. You'll often find that the younger folks around you have useful information on what to buy and who to hire. Especially if they've rotated in other people's labs before joining yours!

2. Go to meetings with your trainees, introduce everyone to everyone else, and include your trainees in discussions with other PIs.

One of the major problems, especially for women, is being shut out of these casual information-sharing sessions. This often happens purely for safety reasons that men rarely consider.

Put yourself in my sensible shoes. I'm not, as a woman, comfortable going drinking with a bunch of guys I don't know in an unfamiliar city. Or hanging out in some guy's hotel room. Yeesh.

See what I mean? It would just be a stupid thing to do. But I might do it if I were a guy, because it would be a completely different ballgame (so to speak).

As a woman, I feel much safer if I know at least one other person, preferably someone whose judgment I can trust. And as a junior person, I feel much more comfortable if I'm with someone who can bridge the distance and at least partly knows the other people in the group when we all go out for dinner, etc.

ALL of my advisors have been terrible about this.

Advisor #1 was too poor to both attend and send one of us, so we had to go by ourselves to meetings if we went at all. This was scary and useful, but not nearly as useful as it would have been with a knowledgeable chaperone to tell us (instead of making us discover it for ourselves), street-smart things like why you don't attend every single talk at a huge meeting, and where the influential people hang out when they're skipping talks in a giant convention center. Okay, so being poor is pretty common nowadays, but it would have been better for us all as grad students to attend 1 meeting together with the PI than to each attend two meetings alone. See what I mean? More bang for your mentoring bucks.

Advisor #2 was pathologically antisocial and did not attend meetings and/or did not socialize at all even when forced, for example, to chair a session.

For example, one really good way to avoid spending time with your mentees is to bring your kids to meetings and treat it as a family vacation.

And so on. My current advisor is scheduled so high and wide for speaking at meetings that there is no hope of overlap unless it's booked ~2 years in advance. So I'm not going to get any help there unless it's by accident. Fortunately I've reached the point where I'd like to think I don't need it so much as I used to.

3. Coach your students and postdocs on what to expect in both formal and informal (sneak-attack) interviews.

You might, if you're a good mentor, already do practice talks when any of your mentees are going to give a seminar or a paper at a meeting. Right? A lot of labs do this. And it's great practice!

So why don't we do career coaching the same way? Publicly, and with a fair amount of humiliation.

Better to do it in your own lab than out there! Right?

For example, I've been blindsided by what I call trick questions while "casually" socializing at meetings, where I've been invited out for dinner or lunch with faculty I've never met before the meeting started.

Here's the surprise: they don't just ask what you're working on or what you're planning to do. This is usually all we've practiced saying out loud in front of anyone. Right?

They ask where you want to live. This inevitably leads them to ask about your personal life (and often in totally illegal ways). How do you handle that?

If you know what to expect, that's money in the bank. If you don't, you often miss important opportunities (see for example PiT's recent post).

Why not stage these kinds of conversations with your group, and see how they handle it with an audience? It's quite a bit different than if you're talking comfortably with them in the privacy of your office, where they know you and you know them.

Put on your interviewer hat, and see how they handle it.

re: the guy who won't take advice to email the famous scientist. I can kind of understand this. Once upon a time (and maybe still a little bit), I was very shy about calling strangers on the phone. It wasn't rational, it was like a phobia.

I sometimes still put it off until I know what I'm going to say.

My guess is that if you ask this guy why he doesn't want to do it, he'll admit he doesn't know what to say.

If he still says he'll do it and then just doesn't do it, tell him you'd be happy to read whatever he writes before he sends it off, and talk about it with him. Most shy people appreciate that kind of support, even if it's purely psychological (maybe you'll end up saying what he wrote is perfect, and it just ends up being a pep talk- but you have to get him to write something first!).

It's also possible he had a run-in with this person at a meeting once upon a time, or something, and it went badly. Or there's some other reason you couldn't possibly know about (he's heard this person is a something-ist and he happens to be something-or-other so it seems pointless to him to try to bond with this person?).

Anyway good luck, let us know if my advice ends up being helpful at all! And maybe others commenting (and lurking!) here might have more suggestions?


I love what you said. Very endearing. But kind of sad that you have to put up a front that you learned from watching men, don't you think?

Still, it says you're a good mimic!

I've learned a lot by watching, but I think I've sort of hit a plateau with that. And as I've blogged about extensively, I often get female-specific backlash for doing the exact same thing that men do all the time. They say I'm arrogant, or whatever, not confident.

It's crazy because I'm just like you, obviously, dealing with insecurity all the time while trying not to cry!

daedalus2u wrote:

It isn't a scientific problem and it doesn't have a scientific solution.

I think it does have a systematic solution, though. See for example, can you imagine if everyone actually did what I suggested a physicist (above) could do?

Although what we have now isn't really a system, more of a collection of errors that happens to lurch along through time, I think we could systematically develop a system by getting rid of some of the most egregious errors. Don't you?

But I didn't say it was ONLY a feminist problem (did I? Did I mention I wrote that post at 3 AM?).

I do think the problem for feminists is that we haven't made more of an effort to identify this as a MAJOR problem for women and do something about it.

And one could argue that it should be possible to identify other logical thinkers and avoid being exploited that way... but only if one has enough street smarts to figure out where to find them!

Anon 8:31 pm wrote:

My understanding is that street smarts is not something that someone can tell you. All of the street-smart people I know got that way through a combination of hard experience, applied intellect, and basic intuition about how people and organizations work.

and Alienta wrote:

You get "street smarts" from the street. You dont get them "handed to you" by anyone.
You dont get them from reading a book. Those are facts.

Yeah, I disagree. I also don't like reading the writing of people who eschew apostrophes in conjunctions. What's up with that? Too much txting?

So I ask you all,

What's hard experience, if not learning?
What's applied intellect, if scientists don't have it in abundance?
What's basic intuition? Isn't that based on INFORMATION GATHERED ABOUT THE WORLD?

Nobody thinks street smarts is psychic ability, and it's not inherent or babies would be able to manipulate free rides on the city buses.

Therefore, I conclude that it's learned.

From that, it follows that it CAN be taught.

That fundamental belief, that what can be learned can be TAUGHT, is why I want to have a career in education.

I submit that people who don't believe that should question deeply whether they should ever be allowed to teach anything to anyone.

I also disagree with Alienta's statement That "luck favors the prepared mind" is a profoundly wrongheaded idea.

I've had a lot of scientific "luck", and it has worked exactly this way. I am not, by all definitions, a lucky person. But when the people around you are telling you that little blip is nothing, but you know it's not and you know why it's actually really important, that's having a prepared mind.

It's only called luck because of the Just-World Fallacy. People assume than when unknown scientists get good results it was dumb luck. Not hard work. It's just totally false and cuts both ways.

Where the street smarts really come in is when you have to convince other people why it's important and why they should help you follow up on it. That's also the essence of grantwriting.

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Practical magic: science vs. street smarts in academia.

I can't sleep. So you, dear readers, get a very long 3 AM blog post from MsPhD!

This week, I have been musing on a new hypothesis I'm developing. It's probably not a new feminist theory in any sense, but to me it was a revelation. And since my therapist is still on vacation, you get to hear about it here first!

According to the Just-World fallacy, if you work hard you will be rewarded, and if you are being punished you must have done something to deserve it. Right?

Many of us who do well in academics hold tight to this thinking, because we always did well in school. We want to believe our good grades, etc. have been, and will always be, rewarded by success. So we look for the equivalent in research: good results, good writing, good talks. Doing the right experiments.

Conversely, if you're not getting the papers or the job or the grants, it must mean you suck. Right?

However, some of you know this is not how academic science actually works.

And here's where things get interesting. The people who do best, on average, have not just science smarts, but also street smarts, and in just the right ratios (I'd guess maybe 3:2 or 1:1 or even 1:3).

Intuitively, we all know this is true. We all went to school with That Guy (it's almost always a guy) who aced every exam. But That Guy sucked at the bench, and/or could never figure out the right experiments to do, despite spending every waking minute reading about science, talking about science, and expounding on what everyone else was doing wrong.

Yeah. That Guy.

That Guy was missing some of the street smarts. Maybe he had zero, or maybe he just didn't meet the threshold. Maybe he's a perma-doc to this day, because he never really caught on.

In earlier generations, he might have had a faculty position because there were more of them in those days, but not now. Now, you gotta have art.

And the converse of That Guy is true. Let's call him That Prof. That Prof had a meteoric rise, short postdoc, so everyone assumes he's a genius.

The truth is, he's probably not. He probably just had the formula (some smarts + street smarts) = success!

Supposedly, your level of street smarts has more to do with your upbringing than almost any other single factor. People who know how to come in and play the system usually learned those skills early on, from their parents. Or maybe if they did certain activities after school.

This is a critical skill, but you don't learn these things in class.

However, here's where things get really interesting for women in particular.

From what I can tell, street knowledge is really hard for women to get. Again, maybe not a novel idea, but bear with me, I'm trying to figure out how to fix it.

1. Men tend to share street knowledge mostly (notice I didn't say only!) with other men.

The women I know who have done very well, did so because they either had a lot of street smarts to begin with, so they hooked up with older (usually male) mentors, and got the information and help they needed that way.

Some of the less street-smart ended up, usually through sheer luck, with husbands who fed them the information they needed (and/or helped them get their jobs via couple hiring).

Those are the two categories, people. Think about that cold, hard fact for a moment.

And ask yourself, if you got a job on your own, was really all on your own? Didn't somebody help you?

2. Women are often blind to the existence of street knowledge. If we know it's there, we can't figure out how to get it.

This is the Handbook of Unwritten Rules phenomenon.

Some of us know things are progressing in an irrational way.

Or, we assume there's a rationalization based on logic we just can't follow (Just-World Fallacy, anyone?).

But we're stuck at that stage. We can't figure out how to get the decoder ring. Some people, failing to get it, conclude that it's all paranoia and must not exist.

They're wrong.

3. Many of the men (and women!) we work with don't think of it this way, so their treatment of us is based on the Just-World Fallacy.

By the time we're at the critical junctures, we women might have made some substantial efforts to get street knowledge, with varying degrees of success.

However, we're already behind where we should have been in our careers, due to the cumulative lack of having had street knowledge handed to us, as it often is for men.

This is assumed, via the Just-World Fallacy, to be due to insufficient desire, ability, or hard work (Thank you, Larry Summers).

We are falling behind, therefore we must have been lazy, stupid, or just plain bitchy. Right?

We get treated this way for long enough, and we start to believe it ourselves.

Maybe I just suck, we find ourselves thinking.

Then the road splits and you have basically two choices.

a. Notice you are becoming bitter and/or insecure, publicly or otherwise. Start a blog, go to a therapist. Try to figure out why.

b. Major career change, assuming it will be better elsewhere. Either it will be more suited to your particular abilities, and/or it will help stop thinking you suck.

Sometimes it is better elsewhere, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes we see what we want to see (projecting that it is better in industry or with a female PI, for example, can help postpone the steep descent into bitterness).

This all started solidifying for me, as this week I found myself explaining to a Condescending Collaborator (we'll call him CondeColl for short), ye olde tired refrain: No, I'm not an idiot.

The default in science is to assume everyone else in an idiot until proven smart. Right? Some of us try to keep an open mind, but to be human is to blink.

In this case, I had to defend myself to CondeColl, whom I had coincidentally just provided with a new protocol (which he agreed will save him a tremendous amount of time and effort).

Therefore, I had just proven I'm not an idiot. Right?


I gotta tell you, I am getting tired of this schtick. How much energy do I have to spend correcting people's wrong assumptions about me? Because of how I look? Because of stereotyping? How much does that set me back, emotionally and otherwise?

And yet, to do nothing is not productive, either. For me or for anyone who comes after me in this business.

CondeColl is a young man who was slightly skeptical when I tried to get him to walk a meter in my shoes. I was trying to explain to him how, from my point of view, it was hard for me to figure out when I was being shut out of an all-male gang in my lab, but I ultimately realized what had happened had nothing to do with science.

(Lest you think I went asking for trouble, this was in answer to his question about whatever happened to X system that one of the gang members touted as the next sliced bread).

Long story short, I'm not sure if CondeColl gets it, but hey at least I tried. This walk-a-meter approach has worked with other clueless guys in the past. Sometimes it takes a little while to sink in.

And this applies as well, of course, to ALL of us in science.

To wit, everyone assumes that all the setbacks a postdoc (male or female) experiences in publishing, etc. must be due to their scientific shortcomings, right?

Or because they're just arrogant, so no one can stand them, much less wants to help them (like That Guy)?

I was asking another co-worker recently what happened to a senior postdoc who left after 8-9 years. The answer was precisely the Just-World explanation: "He had personality deficiencies".

So let's be honest here. Shit happens to everyone. Some more than others.

The ones who have street smarts know how to get themselves out of tight spots, and the ones who don't.... get swept off the street.

When we make a judgment about someone not making it in science and therefore not being good enough, it could be that all they really lack is street smarts.

My concern is that I'm watching these senior women who managed to make it, and they are still lacking for street smarts. If they don't have it themselves, how are they going to pass that on to their female mentees?

Meanwhile, even well-meaning male PIs seem to assume women get our street knowledge from other women.

They might reflexively share with their male mentees, because that's how it was for them and that's how it has always been.

But most don't understand that it can and should be taught to women too.

Even if women are starting out with basically no clue whatsoever. Our cluelessness, in other words, is lack of knowledge. NOT lack of ability.

The truth is, of the female PIs I've met so far, I'm not convinced any of them will, or even know how, to help me.

They might want to, but they don't know where to start. Or I don't know the right words to get them to tell me. There again, my lack of street smarts is holding me back.

I've also tried to ask senior men for help, but they give me the Just-World Fallacy thrown back in my face. They say:

If you're good enough, you'll get a job. But are you sure you want to be a professor, little lady? Aren't you awfully young to be applying for jobs?

At least the women (generally) don't give me that particular brand of crap.

So walk a meter in my shoes. What kind of emotional toll does it take to deal with that, and know that each time you go asking for help or advice, you're always risking having to deal with that? Don't you eventually stop wanting to ask?

Meanwhile, five minutes later, both male and female PIs turn around and say to Other Guy (who, as near as I can tell, is not asking for help and no more deserving than I am): Here's how you do it. And then they hand him the Big Book of Street Knowledge for Dummies.

I've seen this happen. They tell me to fend for myself, and then they turn around and grab Other Guy by the hand and drag him down the street. It's incredibly frustrating.

A friend of mine, in her more bitter moments, puts it thusly: In the current economy, everyone is concerned about the men getting jobs to support their families. When 85% of the men already have jobs, we'll get jobs. But not before then.

Who knows if that's actually true (probably in another decade feminist economic theory will have the data to prove it true or false).

Meanwhile, most people seem to both expect and award street knowledge to guys, but not to women.

And it's self-reinforcing. The more you have, the more you get. But if you start out with none, it's really hard to get anywhere at all.

Maybe this is true in science and otherwise. I can really only speak to academic science. But I think this is a big part of what is holding us back.

Blogging has been a huge help. I've gotten all kinds of feedback, some more constructive than others, but all of it educational. If you can lurk around here, you can learn some things.

I have tried some other approaches to getting street-smart. I've read books on negotiating, etc. and some of those tools have been helpful although I suspect that when I really need to use those tools, I come across as someone who read about it in a book (!).

But my revelation of the week was that I need to be kinder to myself about this, because let's be honest: I'm basically still starting from scratch.

I have a decent amount of street smarts, maybe, but I haven't been given the Handbook of Street Knowledge in science, and not everyone understands that.

So it's no big surprise that some people will default to assuming I'm an idiot until proven smart. And some people who read this blog and know nothing about my science might assume I'm an idiot scientifically, too. I promise, my science is even better than my blogging!

I just hope that some of you can consider the possibility that, although bad things happen to everyone, it's not all deserved.We don't live in a Just World, no matter how scientific and objective we try to be.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

2009, here we come!

MrPhD has a very sick sense of humor. Today he hooked up a new surround-sound system in our apartment, speakers in two rooms, etc.

Guess what's he's blasting out of said speakers?

Thriller, anyone???

I am soooooo traumatized.

Did I mention that last night at the New Year's party one of the younger chicks was un-self-consciously wearing black lace-trimmed LEGGINGS????

Gah, I am SO old. I had those same black lace-trimmed leggings in 6th grade, for crying out loud!

However, I am proud to say the following.


ARE NOT hungover
ARE going to work today
HAVE jobs

And we are fighting for our lives inside a killer, thriller, tonight!

Stay tuned for more exciting dramatic posts from the very scary cutting edge of research and almost-unemployment...

(Oh yeah, and happy blogiversary to YFS. I can't believe I've been doing it this long and still pseudo-nonymous...)

And thanks for reading, y'all...

Okay, I have to go hide under the bed now. The iTunes has advanced to the remixed version of Beat it.

OMG! Suddenly I want to drink large quantities after all...

No one likes to be defeated... it doesn't matter who's wrong or right.

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