Saturday, July 24, 2010

Feeling old and overeducated

Every once in a while, I make an attempt to hang out with non-scientist friends.

Even when these people are my age, sometimes it just makes me feel really old. Like having gone to grad school and doing a long postdoc gave me the equivalent of the world-weary, veteran, thousand-yard stare.

I feel like these people are making the most banal observations, things I figured out years ago. Things I read in books when I was in elementary school. Of course, they also don't know how to listen, so they dominate the conversation and I can't get a word in edgewise to change the subject from their endless monologues.

I do have non-scientist friends who are not like this. Who are older, and wiser, or maybe they were just born with enough wisdom to know not to do science in the first place. We talk about life. We have real conversations.

And then sometimes I hang out with friends who are actually younger AND not scientists. Some of them are really entertaining. But there are some people, I'm not sure why I ever hang out with them at all. Talking to them just kinda makes me want to shoot myself in the head.

In the worst case, I feel like I'm babysitting kids who won't listen to a word I say. I keep wanting to yell, "It's time to go to sleep! Stop jumping on the bed!"

Like that one time I babysat for a couple of incredibly spoiled brats and actually let them jump in the beds until I saw their parents' car drive up. Just because I knew it would tire the kids out enough that they would actually submit to laying down and closing their eyes. I spent the whole evening with one eye on the kids, and one eye out the window, waiting for it to end.

It was bad enough feeling un-heard and disrespected at work, but at least there everybody knew I was a senior postdoc, and they knew what that meant. I don't think anybody ever treated me like I hadn't worked hard, even if they might have claimed I still needed to pay more dues, or that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Even if they never came back later to admit I was right, or apologize for ignoring me. I figured eventually they would learn the hard way, even if I couldn't make them see what I had already seen.

Out in The Real World, I'm judged entirely on my appearance, which is young and female. And people tend to talk to me based on that alone, without having ever asked me what I do.

They just assume they are smarter or more educated or more well-read than I am. But usually they aren't.

So, yes, I got carded again last night. I glared at the bartender when he asked, but I knew it was just his job and at least he was nice enough.

And I'm trying to cultivate a sense of humor about all of it.

The last few people I met who did ask what i do, I said I was trained as a scientist and got my PhD X # of years ago, they said, "Oh really?" and did a tiny double-take, like they seriously had no idea what to say to that. Like they thought I was fucking with them just to see what they would do.

My favorite comment of the week from someone who clearly wasn't sure whether to believe me not: "Well you seem like a pretty smart person."

This amused me because of the way he said it, like he was actually thinking I'm not sure if you're lying or not, but you seem like a pretty good actress and I wouldn't know a real scientist from a liar anyway...?

I also had a moment of schadenfraude this week when I spoke to a friend who works in Big Pharma. For the last three years or so, I told her I was having problems with my advisor, how frustrating it was to have a sexist boss who wouldn't listen to me, took credit for my work, etc. And she was always sanctimoniously bragging about how she loved her job and was so glad not to have those kinds of problems. And I always thought Wow, she is either way smarter than me about picking places to work, or just really lucky.

Well, let's just say her luck has run out. This week we talked about how her boss does nothing, takes credit for her work, and then privately thanks her later "LIke I'm his fucking secretary!"

And because the new season starts tomorrow, I have to add the obligatory reference. Yes, it sounded like something out of Mad Men.

I'm sorry to hear that she's having a Peggy Olson problem, but part of me kinda wanted to say, "See? Now you know."

Except I'm not really sure if she gets it, yet. That it's not just this guy and it's not just happening to her.

It's not really until you realize that it's rampant, that everyone everywhere will at some point experience it. Only then will you really see what's going on and start looking at it with one eye out the window.

Maybe in a few more years of this Big Pharma, she'll have the equivalent of the thousand-yard stare. In the meantime, at least she's capable of carrying on an intelligent two-way conversation. And she knows I've paid more than my fair share of dues.

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At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said... are really beyond help at this point. If you imagine that the bartender thought you were not smart and educated because you are a woman (and after seeing your ID, he said to himself: well she is 21+ so she MUST be smart and educated) you have reached a point of extreme paranoia.

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would suggest that you poll the readers of your blog on whether you are paranoid about being a woman in science.

Yes, your boss sucks. Most bosses suck. I am a man and my boss sucks too. You should have seen what my boss did to me last month. He got me to withdraw my single author paper 24 hours after submitting it because he thought I had not consulted him enough about it. That's true... mostly because it was my own idea and in fact I had begun writing that paper more than a year ago.

Yes my boss sucks. And I have to suck it up. After apologizing to him for not making him feel important enough, I had to thank him for a small grant that I had received due his letter of reference.

Bosses suck. There's not a damn thing a postdoc can do about it, except work harder. Each time they kick your ass, say "thank you" and work harder to make an escape. The idea is not to get justice but make an escape.

At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you feel old but you look young and you still get carded? Doesn't sound so bad! Or is 'old' a good thing to you?

I feel old and unsuccessful when I compare myself to people my age outside academia. They seem so grown up - married, with kids and real jobs that don't just last a couple of years at a time and buying houses. I've never even owned a car.

Unfortunately I don't think I'm ahead of them in any way. People are often strangely impressed because I work at a fancy scientific institute, and I'm always impressed that they're doing grown up stuff.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Great post, yet again. I hardly ever go back to see people that I once knew. I was just invited to a 25 year reunion for exchange students, but I know that if I go it will be exactly like you say. In fact, the only reunion I ever went to was for my primary school gifted kids class. As far as I know, I was the only one in that class who ended up in Physics. So much for the boys 'bell curve' theories about how much smarter they are.

I remember babysitting two brats when I was about 15 years old. My mother started finding me all sorts of nightmare jobs, and she refused to take NO for an answer. But somehow I never babysat again. I think my mother was worried that she would scare me off having kids ... but there really was nothing she could do about that.

Ah, the stare. The hard thing for me is that I was born with that stare ... it's in my genes. I was always an asperger's type person who hated chit chat and read a lot. And now that I'm a great war veteran ... well, I'm more of a nervous wreck than a starer. But yeah ...

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Jade Ed said...

As usual, a really good, honest post. On the looks thing, I love it when I meet people that I've been talking to on the phone or email for weeks and see the shock on their face. I am 40 but look probably anywhere between 18-28 depending on what I am wearing and how I have my hair (t-shirt, pony tail vs. collared shirt, up-do).
That looking young attribute is pretty cool when you're 40. I am always asked for ID.

When with friends that are not scientists, I don't usually tell people about the PhD. I try to blend and make people feel comfortable- I hate when people make comments about being "beneath me" because of my education. That happens. My man is not a scientist so I've had a lot of practice in dealing with some of the situations you've described.

My last comment, on the issues with the boss and job, sounds like you need to be your own boss and start your own biotech company ;-).

At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not "over-educated", it's under-valued. Knowing "too much" isn't the problem.
Having a thousand yard stare is way better than a thousand yard stream of piss. Maybe we'll burn holes in their skulls. LASER BEAMS ON!!!!

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

She may have the thousand year stare, but she'll also have several thousand in the bank. Academia is for chumps.

At 2:27 AM, Blogger Bee said...

Oh yeah, I know the feeling. Sometimes I go out and hear people talk and it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. I mean, it's not an educational thing. I can't blame people for lack of knowledge. But what makes me fear for the future of our civilizations is that they don't realize their lack of knowledge and/or draw conclusions that are so obviously wrong you wonder what it is they have between their ears. And the worst is, the world is full of them! Then I go home and think, but we got that far anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter after all. I'm flip-flopping back and forth on that though. Sometimes I think human civilization has reached its peak and we're on the decline. Then again I think we'll make it up on a completely new level. I guess we can only do as good as we can, so keep on blogging :-)

At 10:57 AM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

I know exactly what you mean about feeling a disconnect between yourself and non-academic peers.

One difference: I *love* getting carded! I have a completely irrational fear of getting old, so I get quite irritated when I'm not carded ("Do I look 35, dammit??!!)

At 12:54 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@anon 12:40, You seem to be one of only two people who read that section of the post that way. I'm sorry you seem unable to understand the points I was making.

@Anon 12:54, It's not just about bosses sucking. You'll see. Just wait. I gave up on justice a long time ago. And karma might work, but it isn't very satisfying unless it catches up in my lifetime.

@Anon 1:49, I used to be impressed with people doing what looked like grown-up stuff. Then I spent more time with them and realized that most of them are blindly careening along, doing most of these things without any presence of mind, just following directions from their parents or whatever they think everybody else is doing.

In a way it's empowering, to know that it's not like we're missing some magic guidebook for doing these things. It's like crossing the street. You look, and then you just step off the curb and go.

In other ways it makes me sad and scared to realize why society isn't really making any progress. It's too easy to just follow the crowd and do what you think you're supposed to do without ever learning anything or growing.

It's like how some people say there should be a license you have to get before you can have kids. All the things we do with regulation, and any yahoo can go out and have kids and fuck up their lives. Or buy a house, go bankrupt, and expect the rest of the country to bail them out.

@ the rest of you - thanks, glad you liked the post.

At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the risk of making unwarranted assumptions about your locale of business, you should live in the greater Cambridge, MA area, land of academia, where no one would assume a woman couldn't be a postdoc because there are 10k+ of them and all the girls and all the guys know several and are friends with them. That won't solve the PI problem though.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 6:16, funny suggestion. Actually lately I am quite glad not to be around academics judging me and making assumptions... I think the whole PI issue ultimately came down to the mismatch between my advisor's reputation vs. the secret reality. It's a double-bind because if I speak up, I'm being 'too negative'. But if I say nothing, I'm screwed because I supposedly had an easy time with tons of resources... right?? Except I didn't. At all.

At 9:12 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Hear, hear MsPhD. When I'm in an uber academic environment, people do usually figure I'm probably a postdoc, but they would never guess the field, because that field is all pale males. And when I'm hundreds of kms from the nearest university, people often think that physicist means physician. Either environment stinks.

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though I am a guy, I think I get it. Women feel pressured and shunned in science. It's that simple. When I was in high school, no girl would speak to me because I was a geek. That never bothered me, because as we know, teenagers are not horny. Sex is not a powerful driving force for teenage boys...nope, no pressure there. Rather, I would spend my days feeling sorry about the one girl geek in the school and how all the guy geeks like me would make fun of her everyday, unlike the girls in school who never ever made fun of me for being a geek.

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Miss Outlier said...

When I was in undergrad, my four best friends were non-scientists. I always felt like we all connected and understood each other. But now I'm in my third year of graduate school, and the others have all taken different paths. One is married, the others work various entry-level jobs. And now I don't feel like I have the same issues at all.

So now I feel rather like a bad friend for wanting to bang my head against the wall when we talk. In fact, talking to anyone my age who is a non-scientist feels like inane drivel.

Frightening to realize what "normal" is, and then realize that half the world is below that....

Or maybe I'm just old and elitist and crotchety. :) Here's to finding good, worthwhile conversations in life!

At 8:33 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

anon 11:04, I can't tell if you're being only partly sarcastic or fully sarcastic.

It's funny, I feel more geekish/outcast now than I have in a long time. I guess the cocoon of grad school and postdoc makes it easier, knowing you have a fleet of geeky colleagues.

Miss Outlier, my best friends in undergrad were half and half, people I met in science classes and people I met in other classes. But it is always hard to grow apart.

Whether it really has anything to do with science per se, I don't know, but sometimes it's just tiring to talk to family and friends who have no clue what we do. Even when they ask, they don't really want to take the time to listen to the answer.

But the ones that really annoy me are the ones who think they can self-educate by reading whatever nonsense on the internet or what their stupid primary care physician told them and they're just assuming it's all absolutely true. They haven't even heard of PubMed, but they're spouting off factoids like I'm the one who needs edumacating-! That drives me nuts.

I usually go off on them about whether they've read the primary sources or if they're sure the data even exist. They always look shocked but they don't seem to alter their clueless habits.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger R.B. said...

Well, if you're not angry, you're not paying attention. For some reason this advice is always given to me in an attempt to make me feel better. So it looks like you're paying attention.. feel better?

I work in a library, a woman-dominated field, and I know about being treated like a young'n, but don't get ANY flack for being a lady. I know when I leave this place, I'll be bracing myself.

The bit about non-academic friends horrifies me somewhat. I'm a non-academic (not a librarian, just a paraprofessional) married to an academic.

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Great post. I am always thrilled to get carded. Frankly those people who card you are just doing their job. I think they're supposed to card you if you don't "look" over 40, so I'm always disappointed when they actually don't bother. It's like, do I look that old?

I definitely get you with the having to pay "more" dues thing. I mean that's always it, right? They're nice, they aknowledge your seniority, but whatever final step to actually get the keys to the've never paid it.

I definitely get the disparity elsewhere. With a lot of years working under my belt it's hard to listen to undergrads talk sometimes. Their concerns seem so trivial. But then when I'm taking a class at a community college, and there are people working two jobs with no degree and trying to take this class, you can really respect what the difference is. It's more about life experience and less about education. I'd rather not spout my number of degrees in community college because it seems so privileged and I don't want to come off to them the way the self-centered undergrads come off to me.

At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, i am so glad i figured out that being a postdoc is something that would never ever interest me (low paying job with long hours, slaving away for an asshole boss and very limited mobility, sure sounds like a winning career choice) before i even started grad school. Wonder if i would feel like i was listening to someone "making the most banal observations, things I figured out years ago" if i was talking to you?
Also really glad that i actually spent some time working a real industry job before coming back for my phd so i can have perspective on both, and not just make blind assumptions about industry (wow scarily close to those people who get all their info from the internetz).

And am i ever glad i don't have all scientist friends, nothing makes me want to puke up my lunch more than us all talking about lab methods gone wrong, or bitching about our asshole advisor, or comparing where we are on submitting that abstract. because in my experience this is about 90% of what people in scientific academia talk about. i had these romantic notions about being able to discuss big issues in science (and by this i don't mean how to run that assay that no one seems to run correctly) and i feel like that is much more rare than advertised.

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(still me from above...)
I mean maybe you are lucky and you talk about big issues in science with your science friends.
I have exactly one scientist friend who is capable of discussing cool science things outside our lab, who actually reads science books outside his field and has opinions on them. instead of spending his time reading junk literature, watching junk tv and movies, which is what i feel most scientists feel they have enough energy to do after leaving the lab 12 hours later.
whenever i get to visit my other friends, i find what they do fascinating. maybe that's the thing, they can't find what you do fascinating, because you either let them know, or they can sense that you think what they do is jsut "blindly careening along, doing ... things without any presence of mind" It's a give and take, i guess, and because i am actually interested to learn what my non-scientist friends do and what are the big and small issues they face, whether it be social work, or creating art, or doing public policy or being a veterinarian, it actually opens up a dialogue. sometimes even about science, and if they read popular science books it can be a starting point, and if they misunderstood something, i can point out why it's not that way. i dont have the need to treat them like idiots. they are all smart people and I am sure they know a million things i don't and i find that cool, not something to put down or feel superior about.

anyway, i have found lately that i have less and less time for people who do science so they can feel superior to everyone else (and there is a lot of them). I don't think that's the point. It creates a disconnect between "us" and "them" and THAT really for me is why society is not making any progress. because we think we have communicated science once it becomes pubmed searchable.

At 5:32 AM, Anonymous pippuri said...

"One is married, the others work various entry-level jobs."

Got to love the fact that getting married is a life path for a woman.

I've been reading this blog for a long time now, never commented. But this entry made me remember one evening out at a house party where no one else except for me and my boyfriend were from academia, and it was two days after passing my PhD defense.

A lot of the people I spoke to were lovely and we had common topics to discuss, but... there was a guy who refused to believe that I had just got my PhD. He kept just assuming that I was talking about something I dreamed to do or something that my boyfriend had just done, although his wife was a (medical) doctor and kept trying to correct him repeatedly very directly.

Another guy at the same party was talking to both me and my bf, and when he heard that both of us were doing PhDs and I had just got mine, he looked very excited and turned to my boyfriend asking what had been his topic, and then asked me how many years I had left in mine. After telling him "no, I got mine two days ago" he just looked blankly at me and turned back to talk to my bf. (Maybe a word of congratulations would've been in place?)

My boyfriend does not look older than I do (he actually still gets ID'd in bars whereas I don't), so why would people repeatedly assume he's done something exciting and I'm still struggling to get anything done!?

Fortunately have to say that I haven't had any issues like that in science circles (yet), but we'll see when I start post-docing...

Keep up good work and interesting posts!

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

ha ha ha, just spent 30+ minutes writing a response to these last comments and blogger ate it. I hate it when it does that.

maybe I'll write a separate post continuing on with these thoughts... maybe later.

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous former post doc said...

I started an industry job after doing a 3+ years post doc and am in my early 30ies. Noone at my new job believed that, but thought I was in my mid20ies.

Not that I mind, really. But I realised that part of the disbelief was "I have a phd so I can't be _that_ young" and of course "you don't have any children and am non married which means you are young". yeah... what to do?!

It's more frequent from the nonscientists I work with, and the same outside of work. It's something with the Academia/Scientist track ... I guess it might be more common to be in your 30ies and not have a "stable" life, but for the nonscientists to have started (and sometimes finished) their marriages and other works and for many women especially "seen the light and taking care of my children instead".

Me? I just feel a bit left out since I want a career....

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@former post doc - exactly! Good point. Not having a wedding ring on my finger is the kind of thing older folks also use to judge. People our generation, not as much.

I'm always surprised when someone asks me if I have kids. I'm not sure why. Seems like kind of a personal question to me, not something I would ask a stranger. I would only ask, "Are these YOUR kids?" if "yes" seemed like a likely answer...?

Realized today that I'm equally taken aback by being addressed as "miss" or "m'am". I just feel like it calls attention to my *gender* when it's not necessary, so kind of defeats the purpose of being supposedly a term of "respect" and seems to imply the opposite.

When I'm really grouchy I snarl at people that it's actually Doctor. Grrr.

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is funny how all students and postdocs keep saying that the boss "is not doing anything and is taking credit for my work". I use to say the same thing. Of course I didn't understand shit about how things actually work and what is the role of a PI. I just hated most of my bosses. That's the main reason I wanted an academic job. I just didn't want to have any direct boss. And in industry you still do.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Karthik said...

Oh, get a life. You want to be respected for who you are without gender and age coming in the way. For a start, stop advertising the both by renaming your blog "scientist".

Please, when will you women start ascribing your gender to everything negative that happens to you. Getting carded happens to men too. Academia has more than its share of men with intellectual arrogance, for all you know its just their insecurity at finding themselves wanting in other aspects of life. My friend who got into the IIT, one of India's elite technical institutions, noticed that his roommate looked depressed after results of the first test had been announced. This was the response he got when he tried to console the other guy - "I don't believe it, even YOU scored more than me".

And yeah, my friend is very much male.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Mad Men Girl said...


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If you wouldn't mind taking a couple of seconds to vote for me, go to my blog, or copy and paste the following link which goes right to my picture:

Thanks a bunch!

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Tim said...

It's really funny to think of the real message of your post, which is: Even if you are a female scientist with a PhD, well-read and educated, intelligent and resourced, YOU CAN STILL SOUND LIKE AN IDIOT AND NOT REALIZE IT.

here's a wake-up call for you: get off your feminist horse!
your 'stupid' non-scientist friends are probably happy to be rid of a self-absorbed arrogant person like you, who talks down to them and feels sorry for herself just because she has to deal with everyday life. Have you ever considered the fact that people might think the same of you? Perhaps your friends aren't interested in you, but interested does not equal interesting. What, i gotta pass a fucking IQ test to be in your inner circle? Please.

If you were so smart and worldly, which really doesn't mean a thing by the way, you would know how not to come off like a moron. But hey I'm just an MD what do I know. I don't have my PhD yet you probably upon reading this you are banging your head against a door, reminding yourself of your babysitting experience which was probably pretty scary for those kids, if they had MEDIOCRE MINDS!!!!!

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Virtual Scientist said...

Dear Young!! Female!! Scientist!!

Please realize that this post is arrogant and condescending towards non-scientists. Also, your blog in general promotes misplaced feminism such as your comments on the use of the words M'am and Miss. Sane people know there is nothing wrong in the use of those words when they are intended with respect and when they are not it is the intention that is wrong and not the word itself. A bad person can speak correct English. Furthermore, I think many people who have commented previously agree that your seem to be narcissistic and out of touch with reality. I therefore urge you to keep in contact with your non-scientist friends, however they make your head hurt from their banality, as I have the sad impression that they are your only link with keeping a functional existence and not descending into a world of self-pity and borderline disorder. I mean this with the best of intention and respect for your personal feelings: get some help.

At 10:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

may i ask.. what did you do in a cafe? isnt that for stupid people?!


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