You'll learn... or will you?
I've been thinking a lot about karma lately, specifically my advisor's karma.
I'd like to think that, although my advisor has repeatedly been wrong about me, underestimated, unappreciated and underserved me, that my advisor can learn.
Maybe not until I'm gone.
Okay, fine. That is more or less what has happened to me before- it's not really until after I leave that people realize all the things I did that they took for granted. They ended up missing me after I was gone.
But there's one flaw in this concept now. The idea depends on my advisor's ability to know quality vs. superficial qualities. And I'm not sure my advisor can learn that.
I was thinking about that this week, as I was looking back over the undergraduates who have worked with me. Invariably, the ones my advisor "recommended" or chose from the batch of applicants were the suckiest ones. They had good grades, sure, but they usually lacked work ethic, did not respect me, and were unable to handle basic arithmetic.
The ones I chose based on my own set of criteria also spanned a range of abilities and level of commitment, but generally they were smarter, more respectful, showed up on time, and worked harder.
Then this week I was assigned two new grad students to work with me temporarily on a very specific project.
One was described to me as being "very good" and the other came with no introduction. Naturally I was very curious to see what was so great about this "very good" student.
Guess which one was more respectful? And actually made a useful suggestion?
Yeah, the one without the fanfare.
The other one is less respectful, but does seem to be good at superficial things.
And this got me thinking about how some people will never get beyond the superficial. They don't know real talent when it's in their own lab.
I was also thinking about this because I have several friends who are extremely talented and hard-working, but their only reward seems to be that their advisors exploit them. Their self-confidence is low because they know they are being abused, and they think it's because they deserve it. No matter how much I try to tell them how good they are, they don't believe me. I realize this is more deep-seated psychology than I can really analyze, but it's frustrating nonetheless.
Another friend is very self-confident, and I really admire her a lot. She has figured out how to get help where she needs it, and in addition she does all the superficial things you're supposed to do because she happens to like doing them - giving out baked goods really does buy a lot of points with people. I don't know if she really enjoys the baking more, or the giving out, or the "points" part. Probably all three.
But that's not why I like her. In fact, I like her in spite of the occasional delivery of free food, which I usually decline anyway.
But I sense that I am in the minority.
One of the things I've really struggled with as an adult is how to find the people who are actually real, not constantly exchanging superficialities (and lying). I think I really expected scientists to be less full of crap than some other professions, but that doesn't seem to be the case at all. In fact, I wonder if the inability to see truth in science extends to the inability to see quality in people, and if this is where the whole mess stems from - falsifying data and false promises => scientists are a bunch of fakers?
Or is it really the case that people like my advisor decided years ago that they couldn't face the truth, so they started constructing these elaborate lies. And now they can't see their way out of them, even if they wanted to.
Maybe the lies of academia select for people who can't tell right from wrong, and this is finally starting to show up in the science itself. Hmm. Maybe I'm not the first person who has thought this, and this may not even be the first time I've written about it here.
I just wish there were some way to teach scientists how to tell quality from superficial bullshit. Lately I feel like everyone around me is so focused on doing the superficial things better that they're missing the whole point.
My point is, I don't care how pretty your data look, if you did the wrong experiment in the first place.