Sunday, March 28, 2010

The difference between respecting your mentors and BS-ing your way to the top

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who can't see shades of gray.

These binary-brains think that lack of ass-kissing equates with disrespect.

It does not equate.

Personally, I think that you respect your mentors enough if you take most of their advice, discuss it with them, argue back occasionally, but mostly seek and take their advice (granted, everyone has a subjective impression of what it means when we say "most")....

I've been thinking about this from the perspective of being a mentor as well as having mentors. Mostly, I prefer mentors who see through bullshit, who don't want their asses kissed and rubbed and polished.

Sadly, you can't always pick the people who have power over your career. They may not be mentors, but they may need a good butt-rub to get moving on your behalf.

Maybe you didn't realize what you were getting into; maybe you just overestimated your own ability to put up with it.

Or maybe, as has happened to me more than a few times, your mentors just disappointed you. You took their advice; it failed. They say they don't like bullshit, but they fall for the brown-nosing from the guy at the bench next to yours (even when it's patently obvious to the objective observer that it's not sincere, just a well-acted manipulation tactic).

So I don't like it when my mentees, or anyone for that matter, give me false compliments in an effort to win my favor or recommendation. I say no, I won't write that letter for you, and please, stop trying to butter me up. I'm not a muffin, cupcake.

But sometimes I do wonder if my mentors know how much I genuinely appreciate their efforts, especially the ones who really gave me advice in good faith, tried to encourage me, and sure yeah, maybe none of it worked out like we hoped.

Every once in a while I'll send them a card or an email and just say Thanks, I appreciate it.

To suggest that doing more than that is actually necessary, even required, for success, just means the quality of people in science is rather low.

Seems to support the idea that science is full of insecure liars who can't tell the difference between a fake compliment and a real one.

And what does that say about their ability to evaluate any other kind of data?

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At 12:53 PM, Blogger Dr.Girlfriend said...

Compliments have always made me feel awkward or uncomfortable. I wonder if is because I sense or suspect the insincerity of them?

I do not think you can over do the thanking, and you should acknowledge those who have helped you. This is not but-licking, this is common courtesy.

However, there are those who will profusely thank and praise their mentors and "superiors" but fail to mention their peers or "inferiors". I had the misfortune of sharing bench-space with postdoc who did just that. This person would fawn all over the PI and forget to mention all the times I helped him with a protocol. He would even credit ideas I had discussed with him as his own! To have someone like this as a mentor would be just awful. Luckily my PI at that time saw right through the little weasel.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Kea said...

When men give me advice to go lick some asses, I have to explain to them very carefully how impossible this is for me, or else they just keep giving the advice over and over again, like a broken record (OK, so I'm old enough to remember records). Never actually had a mentor.

Of course no one likes to discuss ass licking ... you're supposed to PRETEND that everybody is so honest, principled and DESERVING ... because they actually believe they ARE! LOL! And it's all OK for you to get trodden on like a dirty worthless toad, but we wouldn't those menz to feel bad about themselves, now would we? No good to go hurt their feelings ...

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm only 28 yrs old, so take this with a grain of salt, but my experience is that everybody likes a little ass-rubbing. I definitely would not say this is restricted to science.

In terms of making lasting personal connections or just getting along with people, i think saying nice things, even if they are not rigorously accurate, is better than saying bad things or nothing at all. as someone who values honesty and objectivity, its kinda sad but i think its true.

At 1:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yep most faculty I know can't handle legitimate challenges from their trainees. I got fired by my first postdoc advisor for challenging him, he called me insubordinate. I wasn't rude or disrespectful or anything, that is unless the very definition of disagreeing and challenging your PI is considered rude and disrespectful which is what the case seems to be.

Every postdoc I know, sank or swam based entirely on the personality of their PI. Had nothing to do with how brilliant or productive the postdoc, it seemed the sole determinator of their success was their PI's political agenda and personal whims.

At one point (after my first postdoc advisor fired me for challenging him) I was able to come to terms with the business model of postdocs being lab employees and needing to just shut up and follow the PI's orders quietly since after all the PI is paying their salary and thus has the right to boss them around.

However even after talking myself into accepting that, I was STILL faced with two things really disturb me: (a) why no one in the system will admit that this is how things are. Everyone who promotes postdoctoral training - universities and other institutes who employ postdocs, funding agencies, faculty, university adminitrators - EVERYONE talks about postdoctoral training as your "transition to independence" and chides you on how you need to develop your independence. Bullshit. You show any independence and you get kicked out of the system entirely (game over, you're out, your career has ended) because PIs don't want independent-minded "trainees" they want meek ego-stroking ass-kissing employees to follow their orders so the PI can ascend to ever greater heights of fame and glory based on their work.

(b) even though this is the 'business model' of academic science(postdocs are just employees not truly "mentees" or trainees) postdocs are not being paid or given the rights of true employees. No health insurance, no benefits, no job stability. yet when postdocs complain about these, we get attacked for wanting these basic necessities and made to look like a whiny entitled bunch because we are supposed to be "trainees" benefitting from the altruistic PI's "mentorship." What crap.

Therefore what really disgusts me about academia is not just the way the system (meaning how to navigate a career in academia) works, but the two-faced, lying, cover-up of what is really going on, and the rosy propaganda that is being perpetuated by those who benefit from the system.

Sorry for the rant, just seemed that this was a good place to vent...your blog seems to be one of the few that sees through the propaganda being perpetuated.

At 1:46 AM, Blogger nige said...

I disagree a bit, because people who suck up to their mentors get more advice and time spent on them, than those who don't. A girl who slept with her lecturer didn't end up being marked up in exams, but she did end up with a close friend who helped explain things to her that she needed to understand for the exams, and they later married. So sucking up to people is not always the corrupt tragedy it looks like. Life isn't a fairytale in which everything easily falls into categories of being moral or immoral.

At 5:32 AM, Anonymous app said...

"And what does that say about their ability to evaluate any other kind of data?"

Yes! That's exactly what I always think.

Glad to see you are back to regular blogging, MsPhD :)

At 7:05 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

Seems to support the idea that science is full of insecure liars who can't tell the difference between a fake compliment and a real one.

And what does that say about their ability to evaluate any other kind of data?

Ha! One of the best quotes ever from this blog.

I have seen this problem a few times in science, I agree that mentors shouldn't equate sucking up with good science; this usually results in bad science.

I like to think that as a mentor, I know the difference, but I'm sure I have plenty of blind spots.

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

I had a pretty terrible relationship with my PhD supervisor. I gave him the cursory thanks when I graduated and mostly just felt relieved to be out of there.

Now that I'm in a new lab there are certain aspects of my training there that I appreciate much more. In practically all respects this new lab is a much better fit for me, and I'm much happier here. But there are certain things that make me really truly appreciate the training I got in my old lab. Not directly from my advisor, but from the standards he set for the whole lab. He was kind of a jerk to me and we never liked each other, but I think I will send him a sincere thanks for these things that I learned because they are important. Thanks for the reminder.

At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Hope said...

@nige: Huh??!!! I must be misreading your comment, because I can’t make any sense out of it. The woman who slept with her lecturer and got extra “tutoring” as a result was completely in the wrong, if she slept with him just for the tutoring. I’m assuming that you mention they got married later in order to suggest otherwise. If that’s the case, it’s not as bad, but they were both still in the wrong, as in most places it’s considered unethical to carry on with your student(s) – one of the reasons being the unfair advantage that can result from extra tutoring.

Sucking up to people is always corrupt. The fact that life is not a fairytale means that you can’t always do the ethical/moral thing, not that you can’t distinguish one from the other.

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...

To anonymous 1.12 AM: I second your well described discrepancy between seen as a 'trainee' and 'employee' at the same time. It still baffles me though, since I honestly do not believe that al senior scientists are asshole. Actually, maybe you only pick up the truth after you've been there? What I mean is, going into the postdoc, I knew I was also expected to publish in order to have a chance at a faculty job. Maybe I myself thought it was going to be mostly about becoming independent? Maybe those were the things I picked out because that's what I wanted? I was ready to no longer follow blindly into a leader's footsteps? In hindsight, I of course should have jumped in working on a well established favored project in the lab to enhance the chances of gettig above said paper... Too bad the Secret Society that is all of academia never told me that (if they had I probably would have been too stubborn to do that anyways).

With regard to YFS's post: as much as wrongfully kissing ass makes me feel yucky all over, I really can't stand the smart asses who pretend they come up with everything themselves as they quote your ideas verbatim without giving you even a shred of credit.

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So it's OK to sleep with your students (if you're a faculty) and give them extra perks that your other students don't get, as long as you get married later on? Something doesn't sound right about this, not morally and not legally.

if my husband was a student in one of my classes that doesn't make it OK for me to give him extra help on his classwork that I wouldn't be giving the other students. that would be unethical. Conversely if I were an employee in my husband's organization and he was my supervisor and gave me extra resources to get my work done or got me a raise, things that other employees didn't get, that doesn't make it right just cos we are married.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Brandi Badass said...

As an undergrad student in chemistry, I too am finding this situation hard to balance. I was brought up with sitting down and writing thank you notes to people that help you. This is an overwhelming task when applying for research, grad school and scholarships. Recently, a former professor who retired has helped me tremendously so I did send him a handwritten note along with a funny chem magnet. Two other professors who wrote recommendations to a scholarship I will now receive thanks to them will also get a thank you note along with these magenets I like to buy for professors. It is part of my personality... and a token of how grateful I am. I don't think I brown-nose because I certainly challenge them when in class/lab. I can only say thank you so many times tho. I've decided that my presence in class along with my dedication to my work has been the biggest reward to them. I even wrote a thank you card to the man who rejected me at a research college because I know that daunting task of application review was stressful and I am still grateful for being considered. I am also hoping that card might help a professor remember my name when it comes time to graduate school application. It's not one of my top choices, but still... I believe in common courtesy.

At 11:16 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Anon at 11.58,
It seems to me that you do not appreciate the level of ass licking that we are talking about. This is not about being nice to your friends. This is bad enough to be called CORRUPTION. People will ACTIVELY destroy your career because you don't cite them enough in your papers, or tell everyone how wonderful they are. A successful, intelligent employer is supposed to be above this vain degree of nepotism, but academia actually lives in a barbaric age.

At 2:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This whole "mentorship" thing is blown so out of proportion in academia. something is wrong with a profession as a whole when it is based on so-called mentors advancing the careers of their so-called trainees rather than said trainees being allowed to stand on their own and be judged on their own merits. A good mentor is always a nice and valuable thing to have. But it shouldn't be a prerequisite to advancing or even simply remaining in a career, as if nothing you do on your own counts. Why are scientists who have 10 or more years of postgraduate training, and also have PhDs, and are by now in their 30s or older, still considered mere "trainees" and non-persons to the rest of the profession unless they have a mentor's support?? And besides even among "mentors" there is a pecking order- some are more famous and established and powerful in their fields than others. If your mentor isn't high on the pecking order than you don't really have much chance of getting anywhere.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Girlpostdoc said...

@Anon 1:12 AM, Your experience sounds exactly like HippieHusband's. Sigh. HippieHusband's former postdoc advisor (The Godfather) repeatedly called him insubordinate. He was advised by a counsellor to "act confused" around The Godfather never directly challenge him only ever ask questions. In the end it's completely unsatisfactory for the reasons you have so clearly outlined.

I agree with you Ms. PhD but my feeling is that the reason many academics respond to having their ass rubbed as shiny as a cueball is because the entire system is geared to "approval seeking behaviour." The entire focus of an academic career is self-aggrandizement as opposed to the progress of science. My publications, my lab, my grants, my science, me, me, me.

I have, however, come across several awesome scientists who can see through this kind of fakery. I respect both them and their science.

What happens when you put ~20-35 self-absorbed, self-centred, insecure 12 year olds in the same room? You have a faculty meeting.

Oh wait did I say that? I must be a confused postdoc....

At 2:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have hit the nail on the head. Having worked in industry before going back to get my PhD, then doing a postdoc in a national lab, and then another one in academia, I can say with complete certainty that it is the academics who are by far the most self centered, narcissistic and backstabbing bunch. I saw some of that in the national labs too (where career scientists are also career bureaucrats). But in industry and government there is less emphasis on individual stardom. Of course there are political game players in industry and government who crave power and influence, but power and influecne doesn't automatically or necessarily equate with craving fame and stardom whereas in academia the goal IS always to get as much attention and prestige for yourself as possible.

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