Thursday, January 07, 2010

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.

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21 Comments:

At 9:04 AM, OpenID rocketscientista said...

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.

You say it again, and I agree again. There was a girl that became my "science-nemesis" in undergrad. We tended to be mostly on the same level, but professors LOVED her and HATED me (and I was the one who brought in baked goods). She got credit for my work (and that of others, too!), and no one seemed to see through it. And they still don't. She's currently way more successful than I, and it kills me.

I've always managed to hope I can break expectations, but it's a daunting task and a scary pressure to work under. The more I say I need to surprise them by being even awesomer, the more I realize I'm underappreciated, the harder it is to actually be awesomer. And being left off papers one should be on and having that haunt your academic life? Teh Suck.

Gah. It's a vicious cycle but I'm still trying in the hopes that one day someone points to me and says, "HEY, that chick rocks!". A girl can dream.

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger FrauTech said...

I feel your pain. I don't think it's scientists in particular at all, it's just human nature that when there is group interaction like this you get a bunch of fakers. Maybe the problem is those of us who assumed scientists would be different, more "above" that kind of behavior, so it's more about changing our perceptions.

I know so many people, and have at times myself been the person, that thinks they deserve it when they are treated poorly. As well as known a confident mover and shaker who I respected and who tried to inspire me to "fake it until you make it." I think she is on to something. It doesn't mean we need to sacrifice our integrity, but there IS something to playing the game, you don't have to play it like she does but always a good idea to have a shmooze-plan in place.

I also know a manager in my chain of command that sounds a lot like your PI. I don't think he realizes in what retarded ways he meddles in my life. He just acts on that instinct, and that instinct has always been bad for me. I'm not sure how long I'll be here but I suspect once I leave his attitude will be one of haughty self-righteousness. Whether you succeed or fail these guys will always think "I told you so" or "I knew all along." So maybe he'll realize you were a true asset, but he'll never remember that he didn't know that all along.

 
At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's been N=4 nitwits passed my way via PI as "really good students" who were complete pains in the asses. There's been N=7 that I got to pick and only 1 turned out to be a nightmare. It took me a matter of a few minutes to assess the nitwits as being nitwits, and then a few weeks to determine it was pointless to bang MY head against the wall before sending them packing. I also chalked the hiring up to poor judgment on the part of PI who is also a clueless nit. Nitwits see themselves in other people, so after I saw the pattern of like-hiring-like, that was it for me working with students picked by other people.

off-topic: this is something ALL PHDs and GRAD STUDENTS in science need to see. I got physically ill listening to Obama the Hopium Pusher blither about needing MORE! scientists yesterday at his nonsense news event. I would have thrown my shoe had I been in the audience! Check out the dwindling numbers. The link shows the year followed by number of postdocs hired by the National Research Council in parentheses, which are typically three-year fellowships. EIGHT TOTAL LAST YEAR. jc

http://nrc58.nas.edu/pgasurvey/data/aodir/gen_page.asp?mode=list&sql=start_year

 
At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, I might have left out the link for my previous message. jc

http://nrc58.nas.edu/pgasurvey/data/aodir/gen_page.asp?mode=list&sql=start_year

 
At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

Science is supposed to be the art of detecting bulls__t among the roses. This isn't news, but what is is that we only used to have to do all our fighting and competing in one field.

Now, 'scientist' is only small part of our job description.

It's part of the change in how we work, but also in how we are valued, and more importantly, how we value each other.

Ludicrously, the tournament model we work in has conjured up many different arenas in which to joust for 'scientific' kudos beyond, well, science itself.

As we are continually asked to do more with less in our original field, we have to demonstrate our competence in other events.

Thus, we become administrators, PR managers (of ourselves, or our students/postdoc's data), door-to-door salespeople, correspondents, opinion-makers, bloggers, podcasters, and the list goes on.

There is no harm in scientists becoming good or useful at any of these things, and indeed it is helpful to a rounded and successful career.

But these days, the true currency of scientific kudos, that derived from our original field, is completely interchangeable with kudos derived from any other field.

Originally, that logic was only true for people who weren't scientists; recently, we believe it, because there's no telling what a granting agency might find more important.

It's a messy but powerful truth, that roses from any other field now smell as sweet. Put more accurately, look as good, even if they smell as badly.

 
At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always felt that in the American academic culture, an appearance of confidence is considered to be highly correlated with quality, and is highly rewarded. I am thus not surprised that the student who was considered good by your advisor was less respectful (possibly because he or she was too confident.) My experience in grad school is that this valuation of overconfidence typically puts women, minority and foreign students at a large disadvantage compared to white American men.

 
At 3:15 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Oh, I feel the same, about people being real, that is. 90% aren't.
90% of people are superficial, sadly. No-one makes it to the top on merit. I wish I didn't believe that. I wish I could play the game.

 
At 6:24 PM, Anonymous farmerbeans said...

Such a relief to know I'm not the only one who doesn't recognise my chosen industry.

I might get my own blog up and running... maybe getting it all out will help me deal with the mind boggling politics and egotism in research, because I'm not dealing. The disillusionment is becoming hard to gloss over.

 
At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder how we are not the same person. The only way I can tell is that I don't have a blog.

My PhD adviser took me for granted the entire time. Around the time of my defense and it hit home I'd be leaving, he said a few times that he was sorry I'd be gone soon. He supplied the money but I kept the lab running, to be honest.

Years later, he's forgotten my usefulness and begrudgingly (and belatedly) writes my recommendation letters. He's talked to my postdoc adviser and my future (2nd) postdoc adviser and god knows what he's saying to people. My current postdoc adviser is a piece of work as well.

They will never miss me and I will forever be underappreciated. My only consolation is that I am determined to succeed, despite their passive-aggressiveness (and aggressive-aggressiveness).

 
At 11:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head: "scientists are a bunch of fakers"

in industry, what kind of personal fulfillment do people seek: to make money (however they can), to make a tangible impact in the form of bringing products to market, to do job functions that they enjoy. In industry, most people don't usually make it their primarily goal to attain fame and glory.

But in science, most scientists are seeking fame and glory as their primary purpose. And how could they not, if the only way to get your job and to keep it, is to "prove" that you have some degree of fame and glory? the ones who are actually focused on doing the real science because it is intellectually fulfilling, are the grad students and postdocs and staff scientists - the bench workers. The PIs are fakers and posers, they are more about marketing (of themselves and "their" work meaning the work of their employees) than actually doing the real science.

 
At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Paul N said...

An interestig set of observations. In some ways they could be seen as the writer venting because she doesn't get praise she thinks she deserves, while others she doesn't like do. Hard to tell without knowing the situation, but in my own experience, accademic science is a very self centered thing - people do things to make themselves look good, as opposed to get the science done. I moved into industry after 2 post docs, found the energy in the science great, but the pressure bad, moved back into accademia, hated the self centeredness of it, and have now moved back into industry, where I will stay. Like the saying goes - if you don't like the heat, stay out of the kitchen

 
At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Max said...

As a postdoc, I think research - and biological research in particular - favors superficial types. Our bosses have to be team day-to-day managers, OK, but just like top-level managers of big companies they are also actors: They go onto the stage, play a drama, hype up their own results, tweak their model to get the results they need, push their students to tweak their results, rephrase the question to better fit the story and attack their opponents if the results don't fit the opposing camp's models. We are all selling stories to each other and to the public. Their products are not locomotives or cars or gel images- their competitive field is the one of stories, not a transgenic animal or clean cell culture. Our bosses are the marketing guys, the sales people. Reputation and citations they earn, and - at least in the intermediate legue - there are many ways to gain citations and many ways to make yourself known.

This is a discipline where Watson and Crick, scientists that every schoolchild knows, got famous by wild speculations based on data they just saw by accident. They demonstrated to everyone that you can become famous by just defending a vague hypothesis based on other people's data and that you don't have to work hard yourself to get it. These are the types of people that stand out at conferences, that we talk about at the lunch table and that eventually will get tenure.

I think there is a positive incentive in the system that drives it towards more superficiality. I don't believe that with exploding publication and advanced citation-impact-accounting possibilities this will get any better.

 
At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AGREED. I had a student my advisor recommended from a lab that she taught... where supposedly this great student aced the class, learned everything they would need to know to be great in our lab. When I started working with the student, I found he couldn't use pipets correctly, couldn't set up reactions correctly, no idea how to keep a notebook (all things supposedly taught in my advisors class).

 
At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Tricia Kenny said...

Very thoughtful post.

Many things I experienced as well as a graduate student / research assistant. Looking back, I think I learned so much from those times dealing with managers / advisors / co-workers. It's so difficult at the time to deal with the situation because you put all of your heart and soul out there in the lab (not to mention time).

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

So true. God I wish I had such a wonderful friend that they were just willing to allow themselves to look past such a glaring personality flaw as to bring u baked goods. What a bitch, perhaps with your time and understanding she will come to realize that being a whiny bitch is the way to go. Keep up the good fight and turn down those superficial cookies.

 
At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms PhD, I have a specific question for you... I am a 3rd year postdoc, facing the end of my fellowship in a few months. My postdoc adviser and I have had a falling out and it seems to be irreparable. He refuses to write recommendation letters. Well, I need another postdoc job soon, and how the hell can I get one without his recommendation? I thought I'd be getting 2 papers out from his lab but now it's looking like 0. I'm not really that bad. No one else here has papers after 3 years. Why am I being picked on? He's been contacting my former boss (PhD adviser) and actively blocking me from getting jobs. He suggested I go into teaching or industry. WTF. Suggestions?

 
At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, do you only do Feminist Rants....as another person linked your blog....now you are famous!

 
At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah yes, the age old problem of true hardwork and talent going unnoticed and unappreciated, while those who spend more time talking about themselves and playing the right games rather than doing real work are the ones who get rewarded and advance. Happens everywhere. But I do think that it happens EVEN MORE in academia because of several factors that select for the schmoozers and encourage the exploitation of the hardworkers/talented:

1. Academic science is a business. The science is not the main focus anymore. It is merely the commodity by which the business of science is done. Fame, glory, prestige and power are the goals of PIs. The science is only the means to achieve those goals.

2. Academic science is structured to be a serfdom. Due to the huge number of postdocs (with more being produced each year), individuals are dispensable. Those who don't want to be disposed of, because they want to stay in the game so they can continue trying to win the lottery someday, have no choice but to accept whatever is imposed on them.

3. Tenured PIs are immune from being disposed of, so they are only too happy to use and discard postdocs for their own benefit (fame and glory). Untenured PIs, in their desperation to get tenure, similarly use and discard postdocs to get them closer to their goal of achieveing tenure. Again, due to the oversupply of postdocs, any who don't want to be treated like this can certainly leave...but many hang on because they want to stay in the game in hopes of someday making it to the other side. other reasons for staying on are that it is hard to give up a career you have invested so many years of your life and money into, especially when you have made it to the postdoc stage and are thus "so close" the rationale is that you would be nuts to give up now when you have come so far...but many don't realize they are not close at all, and never will be because there is a glass ceiling.

the world of academic science is dominated by "businessmen" - i.e. PIs - and served by those whose talent and hardwork the "businessmen" rely on - i.e. the postdocs and grad students. Being a businessmen requires primarily political savvy, which is superficial for a scientist because it does not directly relate to science and scientific ability. That is why only those people who spend a lot of time being superficial and playing politics will succeed in academia. And why those who are hardworking and talented in science, will continue to be exploited by the superficial ones.

I'd like to think that there is karma but the longer I stay in academia the less I think there is. Sorry for being depressing.

 
At 2:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

hey rocketscientista- you rock!

if it makes you feel any better (?) I was also left off of papers that I should have been on. If you stay in science long enough, eventually it won't matter (and/or you'll have plenty of bigger problems to worry about!). ;-)

ooh FrauTech, I think you hit it on the head. That is EXACTLY the type my PI is. Will take credit for any kind of success I might have, even if PI actually did everything to PREVENT me from succeeding. On the list of people I'd love to send a card someday that reads, "I did it IN SPITE OF YOU."

jc, you crack me up! I am tempted to write a letter to Obama the Hopium Pusher about how we don't need MORE scientists, we need more scientists in DIFFERENT AREAS and fewer students in the areas where we have too many already.

Except I'm pretty sure it wouldn't make any difference whatsoever. However your shoe-throwing idea made me LOL.

Lou Dobbs, you are long in getting to your point, but you're right. It does seem like spin is winning over substance.

Anon 1:47, This is an interesting point. I would tend to see it from a different perspective- as a genuinely confident (in some things) female scientist, I usually find I am not rewarded and instead I am treated as suspect. As in, I must have some kind of pathology that leads me to believe I can fly. Seriously. Confident women = oxymoron in the minds of many men. Does not compute. Cannot exist.

However, I generally agree that confident men are seen as more able and accomplished than men who appear shy or uncertain. This is very American but it not specific to benefiting American men. In fact, I typically see the European men do very well with this working to their advantage. It does not seem to work as well for Asian men (for whatever reason(s)).

butterflywings- do you really wish you could play the game? Because I have tried it and although I can do it sometimes, I find it exhausting and depressing to try to pretend to be somebody I'm not.

farmerbeans- yes! blog!

Anon 8:57- I send e-hugs.

Anon 11:52, This is pretty bleak but mostly right on.

Every once in a while I will see someone give a talk who presents the work done by their students and postdocs in such a way that gives me a lot of hope- as if they are just the ambassador for the talent they are lucky enough to have in their lab. The really good ones are not fakers or posers, they are advisors. They are just a really tiny minority.

Paul N - I think you have some issues you need to work through, and some unfamiliarity with how to write blog comments.

Max - interesting point about Watson and Crick. Not true for Liz Blackburn and Carol Greider - they actually did their own work (so far as I know?)- but I still see what you mean. And I love how you said it:

got famous by wild speculations based on data they just saw by accident. They demonstrated to everyone that you can become famous by just defending a vague hypothesis based on other people's data and that you don't have to work hard yourself to get it.

Very nicely put.

Sarah - um, are you feeling a little defensive today or something? I didn't say bringing baked goods was a personality flaw at all. I just mean I don't really put it near the top of things I care about in a person.

Anon 1:21- will reply in next post.

 
At 4:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen exactly this same bullsh1t over and over and over again in academia (I left after doing 3 separate postdoc stints, just couldn't stomach it anymore). I couldn't bring myself to be superficial enough that was the 'standard' to get accepted as a scientist so I left to go into industry.

I have seen exactly one instance of karma where a highly superficial person eventually - years down the road - was called out as a fake and disgraced. We were grad students in the same lab. But unlike us, he came from industry where he was a high powered manager so he had the marketing and networking skills down pat, all right. And he proceeded to use these to fake his way through grad school. He was so good at it that all the professors even those on his committee fell for it. It was so infuriating to the rest of us who were actually doing real work and busting our rear ends and our intellects to get our PhDs while he was faking his data and covering it up with marketing. He got his PhD too, and was a favorite among the professors. He got a assistant prof position at a small university. about 10 years later (which was last year) I heard that he got fired when it was discovered that he had plagiarized or faked almost every data he had ever presented. I don't know who called him out or how it happened, but when it happened he did get fired and his academic career is definitely over. Since by this time I was in industry, and our specialty field is small, the last I heard through the grapevine
is that he was going around asking various companies to hire him, selling himself as some expert academic consultant or something. But the last I heard, no one had hired him and I have no idea where he is now. He's not on facebook either (or at least not anymore?)

I have to admit that I found it very satisfying to see FOR ONCE a "faker" get called out and pay the price and there was a lot of buzz among my grad school lab alumni friends on facebook about this when it happened. But this is only one such occurrence that I've seen of a "faker" getting called out and paying the price and is not the norm at all. Usually they just rise to ever higher heights of success.

 
At 5:47 PM, Blogger Balancing Act said...

"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. "

O..M..G.. I thought you were talking about me and while I don't know even women in science for me to know you, I started wondering if I did.

"Every once in a while I will see someone give a talk who presents the work done by their students and postdocs in such a way that gives me a lot of hope- as if they are just the ambassador for the talent they are lucky enough to have in their lab. The really good ones are not fakers or posers, they are advisors. They are just a really tiny minority."

Those are fabulous talks and I love to see those!

As for the self-confidence discussion later on in the comments section, (out comes my "faker") at the end of my 1/16/10 post on my blog, I mentioned something said to me this week by a Big Name in my field - that is to hide humility. Modesty, especially in women, is seen as a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence = bad, bad, bad for career.

What's funny? (And this probably needs my own blog post.) I grew up, and until I returned to grad school after staying home with my kids, nothing I did was ever good enough. (My mother later apologized for this.) Guess what? For my current grad advisor, nothing I do is ever good enough. While I realize in general there is always room for improvement, it wasn't until I was working on a proposal with another PI and received verbal accolades after giving a seminar in another department that I realized that my work is good enough. Yeah - that humility thing probably actually is a lack of self-confidence.

 

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