Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I talk about when I talk about science

One of the comments on the last post raised the question of whether scientists mostly sit around talking about:

1) technical problems
2) asshole colleagues/advisors
3) publishing & competing
4) big ideas.

Technical problems: the good and bad of talking about it constantly

the good

Talking about it usually means you'll get advice & commiseration. This might make you feel like less of a loser, and you might learn something that fixes your problem.

It might give you the break you need to head back into the lab and try again.

I love giving advice to others when I know enough to be helpful. I find it satisfying to pass one what I've learned and save other people the trouble of learning the hard way.

I try to be supportive when I can't be useful.

I think if you don't like talking and hearing about technical issues, you shouldn't be in science. Period. This is the bread and butter, day-to-day, one foot in the front of the other. It's how research gets done.

The devil really is in the details.

the bad

Sometimes you get conflicting advice, and that can be confusing.

Sometimes people will be judgmental and it will make you insecure about asking for help again.

Sometimes people are no help, and then you wonder whether you're working in the wrong place, surrounded by people who don't care or don't know anything useful and won't teach you much, or if you're attempting something impossible and wasting your time on a dead-end.

Sometimes I give advice and people don't listen. I've blogged about this before because it's one of my pet peeves. The people who whine and want shortcuts and think it's easier to do it the "easy way" but that doesn't work and then they have to go back and do it all over again. My way might seem "harder" at first but it works, and in the long run that's actually faster. But sometimes I get tired of people asking me and not respecting what I have to say enough to talk to me about why they think it might not work or to just admit they're too lazy.

Assholes in science

I was talking to a grad student the other day about whether there are more assholes in academic science than in other careers. I think there are. She says there are assholes everywhere. I told her I used to believe that, actually had someone tell me that, back when I was in college and debating about whether to pursue a science career.

Now I'm not so sure. I think academic science selects for assholes and cultivates assholishness in otherwise decent people. I've watched it happen. Otherwise decent people, put under enough pressure, become angry starving dogs backed into a corner. They will bite you.

I'm not sure it was always this bad, but it's how it is now.

So yeah, we complain about it. All. The. Time. On blogs especially.

And I've reached a point where I'm just sick of it. I'm sick of working with jerks and I'm sick of hearing about other people being trapped working with jerks. I'm sick of lacking for constructive solutions.

At first, you treat it like just another type of problem-solving. You read all the books on communication and negotiating and you try to out-manipulate the manipulators. For some people, this works, usually in combination with other approaches like mentoring and string-pulling from family & friends.

But I get the feeling that if you need to read books about it (like I do), you're not going to make it through.

After a while, it's boring. It's frustrating being completely powerless and not knowing how to marshall enough support to stand up to these people or maneuver around them (notice the root of these words, man-ipulate and man-euver.).

And then it's like, well I can advise you up to a point but after that, don't ask me. I couldn't figure it out. Just for the love of god, please quit whining to me about it. I tried every iteration I could think of, but it just wasn't working out for me.

Publishing and competition

Truthfully, when I was just a new student who had never done anything myself worth publishing, I never cared about which journal, which author, which institution, or who did what first.

In school, I met people who cared a lot about which journal. My thesis advisor had ideas about which journals were "appropriate" for my work when we went to publish. I had ideas about which journals handled figures well and which ones tended to make them small and unreadable. That was my biggest criterion. Did they present the material well? No? Then I don't care how famous they are. It's not a journal I'd want to be reading.

Then there was the whole authorship thing. Like the collaborators who let us do all the work and then demanded at the end that their student be made co-first author after I had already written the entire manuscript. How was that fair? I realized I wanted people to be citing ME and not her. I did not want someone else to put their name on my writing.

Not having worked at too many different places, I still don't know what I think about the "which institution" question, but it does affect things. I remember sitting in one journal club, listening to the spoiled brats from the richest labs complaining that the authors of a paper from a third-world country hadn't done enough expensive controls. I tried to explain to them what it's like to work in a poor lab. That you have to choose carefully the most important controls that will tell you the most, because you simply can't afford to do them all.

And I remember slowly realizing how much money matters for how much you can do. That it costs about a million dollars to do a Cell paper's worth of work, by the time you pay for everything and everybody's salary who worked on it. And realizing that most labs simply can't afford to do that. And sometimes even the richest labs go through periods when they can't afford to do it for more than one paper at a time. And that paper might not be yours. And it might have nothing to do with which project is the better project. It might have everything to do with who the first authors are and whether the PI likes them more than anyone else.

And realizing how the competition aspect of everything just poisons the atmosphere. Turns people into dogs trying to eat other people they view as competing dogs.

Yeah, I talk about all of that a lot with my science friends. How it's too bad so much good science never sees the light of day because someone else did it first and that supposedly means it's better, when in fact the better stuff often just takes longer. How timing has superceded quality on the list of priorities and how I think that's a terrible thing for science. How timing often comes down to who gossips the most, who fakes or manipulates data, and which famous authors are on their paper. How perhaps it's the famous authors who fake and manipulate and gossip the most. How we all thought science would be less about fame and more about ideas. How we wonder if it was always this way and whether it always will be. Or whether science might implode if things continue on this way.

big ideas

So do we talk about big ideas? Sure.

As much as I'd like? No, not at all.

For quite a while now, I've been very isolated from other people who had similar interests. I talked more about big ideas at meetings than I ever did at my home institution. That was part of why, in the last few years, meetings were the most fun for me. My department was full of people who worked on different big ideas, or who debated endlessly about useless minutiae instead of coming up with ways to test their pet hypotheses. Or who did exclusively "me-too" science. One trick ponies.

At first, I tried to interject. And then I gave up. I would just sit back and let them debate amongst themselves. Sometimes I would try to redirect the conversation to the larger point, to ask, like a broken record, "Yes but how would you TEST that?" But often they would turn to look at me and then go right back to obsessing about which famous guy was right about their ugly cartoon model of their favorite mechanism.

It was hard for me to articulate why I thought even the best cartoon model of their favorite question wouldn't really clarify anything, much as they wanted to know, it wasn't going to move the field forward in any significant way if they weren't doing the right experiments.

But I couldn't figure out how to tell them that productively and have them really hear me. I knew it would just hurt their tiny, insecure feelings.

Also, if I viewed them as my competition, it was easy to see how it was better to let them obsess about something insignificant. Like the Princess and the Pea. If they wanted to think the pea was important, that was fine by me. I would rather that they were exhausted and unable to focus.

Meanwhile, I was sleeping soundly and thinking clearly.

But in general, I always liked the idea that we need both kinds. We need people who care about ideas and people who care about details. I want someone else to do some kinds of nitty gritty and I'll take care of the parts they can't see. That's fine. Ideally, there would be room for everybody.

Yes, when I talk to my friends who are scientists, we talk about the future of science and what the next big discoveries might mean for what we can do sooner or later, and how much later. And why do we have to wait. And can we get our hands on some of that new stuff, can we collaborate.

We talk about what we would do differently if we were in charge of everything. We talk about whether we're helping patients and how can we get our colleagues to think differently, to see what we're saying. How to deal with our own doubts by testing, testing, testing. And how to anticipate our colleagues' skepticisms and be most persuasive.

But mostly, we talk about how tired we are of all the nonsense that gets in the way. How much more we could be getting done if only we had the resources. How un-scientific the academic science hierarchy is. And why nobody seems to want to make the radical changes that would be needed to fix everything that needs fixing.

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At 5:08 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

2- I don't know, I agree with your friend. I mean true you don't find as many assholes working for a truly non-profit helping some unfavored group, but success in any world (academic, corporate) is generally built on things that reward asshattery. Maybe because the academic job market is so overflooded with talent and so you have to work even harder to make it through they are overrepresenting, but I've definitely seen management turn good people into bad.

At 5:47 PM, Blogger Miss Outlier said...

I had taken your last post another way - I thought talking to academics didn't necessarily mean talking about science, but just talking to logical people. I talk with my academic friends about news and weather and sports and what-have-you, not always science. The difference is the conversation is more intelligent, whereas talking to my highschool friends is more "omg my baby daddy left me a facebook message and won't buy me a farmville cow." That kind of conversation I am usually at a loss to contribute to.

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

A million dollars for a Cell paper?! Now that's bad resource allocation! If this were true it would mean that if a lab got an R01 and only produced a Cell paper this would be considered adequate productivity.

At 4:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So why not make the changes yourselves? Start a new institute, or find one that is like what you want. It's not easy, but it's easier than hating your job for the rest of your life.

At 11:33 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

FrauTech, I really don't know. And I'm not convinced the academic market is about "talent" so much as it is about Being In The Club. Maybe this is true everywhere, but as usual it's the hypocrazy of academia that really gets to me.

Miss Outlier, OMG LMAO re: fb messaging. So true!

namnesia, Yes, that is the estimate. That's why nobody publishes a Cell paper alone. It takes more than 1 R01 to get a Cell paper and continue to stay in business.

Flip through Cell sometime and look at how many authors there are on most of the papers, how many mice they used, how many institutions (usually more than one) and how many are published back-to-back with related/competing work.

Anon, I would love to start a new institute. Got some money lying around you want to fund it with? Know somebody who does? And wnats to hire me to be in charge of it?

Yeah, me neither.

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous J said...

wow, long post, just a few comments.

For journals I can't agree, however I'm not into biostuff, and it may be specific to my field that indeed journal impact factors are meaningful in 99.999% of cases.

Yes academia if full of aholes but this is not it's major drawback, in a couple of months I'll be leaving academia for job with more a-holes, more stress, much longer workhours. Why? because I can at last have a proper job & not move ever 2 years, buy a house for me & family, buy a car, buy a bloody HDTV, a stereo, you know like things all people have - all my friends have done these apart from my academic friends, who are more concerned about publishing.

I hope they don't end up like these people


For people becoming wolves, of course they do so, if it's their only means for financial survivor.

Also yes, academia's structure is not too academic, I remember when I used to find that ridiculous and outraging. Not anymore, thing is, at the end of the day it's all about the buck, if someone has money, he can hire people to do the work for him and he'll take credit for that as well. If a bright or whatever postdoc has no money, he'll shut up and do as told, choices are limited. Managerial culture at its best (or worse). Please don't argue that the more talented people get the grants, its the more senior people that get the grants and most of the times the proposal is not even theirs, much like in any other business out there.

Big ideas? big ideas my a$$. The bigger the risk, the bigger the potential gain and at the present moment science is a field that punishes risk-taking, almost everyone is happy to take zero risks and produce minimal-publishable-unit papers. How do you expect new ideas to come when science is risk averse.

This in fact is the second reason, besides the "awesome" paycheck, I'm leaving science. I'm bored to death writing these minimal-publishable-units, even though I'm confident if I wanted to stick with academia, soon I'd have enough publications to get a job, even if I don't value most of them myself. Researchers say do it because it's interesting.Well, it's boring as hell, bar maybe a couple of papers per year in every field. The rest of the work published is mostly obvious stuff that everyone can do -sometimes even a high school kid - producing intuitively obvious results. If people call that interesting, I call bull.

I'd rather skip and rather be in a job, with potentially even more aholes, more stress and much longer workhours, but where not playing it safe by doing obvious things and rather being risky is rewarded.

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I will give a standing ovation to your thoughts on how otherwise nice people can be made into "starving dogs" under sufficient pressure, I really hope that someday you realise that the big male conspiracy doesn't really exist. A female colleague of mine told me that she couldnt get a position in (Super prestigious university) because they "dont hire women". I was flabbergasted that she refused outright to even consider the possibility that they might have had a better applicant. I went to the jobs wiki to see who had got the job, and sure enough there was a guy with a yard long publication list who had been hired. All my female colleague had noticed was that he had a penis. I know ... I know about how this guy would have it easier in publishing because he is male, how guardian angels materialised to carry him into tenure track heaven... I know.

I hope you realise one day that science is hard because its a pyramid scheme... an overflow of people seeking a very small number of jobs... nothing that you already didnt know... but for some reason you keep bashing this big bad male ghost...

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I totally get what you're saying. There was a time, when I was a bit younger, when I would have given anything to be surrounded assholes if it meant competition was out in the open and I could be my own assholish self too. I was just so sick of the gossipy back-stabbing passive-aggressive nonsense. I wanted the risky, exciting, moving things forward as fast as possible. I didn't care if we were a pack of snarling, barking dogs. I wanted to run with the pack if it was going somewhere. I was tired of waiting for my slothful companions to get off their lazy asses.

But I'm a little older now, and I'm tired. I wasted my youthful energy letting science crush my creativity into minimal publishable units. I regret it, and no I wouldn't do it over again if I could, I would do something else if I could go back and be 21 again. But not now. I really don't have the energy to fight any more of that kind of fighting. And I'm not convinced it's the best way to be creative, either. Maybe for a different age group, it works. But I think I grew out of it.

Anon 9:50, I think you're missing the point. We're not saying it's a conspiracy- that's a different concept.

What we're saying is that it's the sum of accumulated unconscious biases of many individuals.

That it's true that because of these commonly held unconscious biases, men get more help getting their work done, and getting their papers submitted, and have an easier time getting their papers accepted.

We're not saying it's a lot different. We're saying it's a little bit different, but consistently, it's different.

Even if it's only a tiny bit of help, and a tiny bit easier, those 1% here and 3% there.. those amounts add up to a big advantage when it comes to "well his CV looks better than hers".

Just think, if every time you went to submit a paper, and you were within the 3% range of it getting accepted, and somebody handed you a "3% off free" coupon. How many more papers would you have? If that saved you a round of resubmitting each time? A round of fighting with your advisor about which journal to send it to, each time?

And nobody seems to really get it at the hiring level that we're talking about apples and oranges. That for us to come up through these ranks is different than it was for him.

That even if nobody means to have these biases, they exist, and it makes it harder than it needs to be.

That when we do have a good CV, we get criticism that amounts to the simple doubt that a women couldn't possibly have done that well on her own - AS IF THE MEN EVER DID IT ALL ON THEIR OWN!

That we're never going to be able to overcome these biases without more help and without forcing people to notice what we've seen. That we're not making it up, it's not imaginary. It's real.

My point is, I know it's a pyramid scheme. I'm just saying that for women it's a tiny bit sharper, just a tiny bit steeper to climb. And maybe that tiny bit makes all the difference when it's barely scalable in the first place.

I read an article this week that said the next big hurdle for equality can only be cleared by getting men on board to help change things. Denying that there's a problem doesn't help. You, sir, may think that you are not sexist, but you are not helping.

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

MsPhd- Yeah I'm saying that EVERYTHING is not about talent, it's all about being in the club. Except maybe academia seems worse because you expect it to be based on the merit system whereas corporate ineptitude, good old boys clubs, and nepotism. I'm just saying no matter where you go there's a bunch of a-holes in charge. It was a little better when I worked at a non-profit clinic (non-profit+healthcare+altruistic cause) but in my case it just meant the a-hole d-bags were way high up the ladder somewhere controlling funding and setting protocols rather than acting directly with me. If you find differently in your post-post-doc career, do let me know! I'm sure we'd all be curious if there's somewhere you can get a job and the world is fair.

I don't think you understand. I talked about this on my blog in response to another post on here: http://frautech.blogspot.com/2010/07/viscous-cycle.html . I'll sum up the relevant paragraph:
I'm pretty sure the White Men Rule the World at my company isn't a conscious conspiracy. Sure, there are probably a few racists and mysogonists who know that's who they really are. But the rest of them are well meaning Good Guys(TM) who believe in equality and think they are operating under that. Unfortunately, when they think about what makes a good engineer or what makes somebody a good manager they have to rely on what they know. And for a lot of people making these decisions, its their intuition and their experience that guide them. And in their head are all these images (engineers tend to be visual) of who've been good engineers and managers in the past. So they aren't necessarily thinking of ruling out minorities and women, but the built-in montage in their heads is dominated by white men. And so the cycle repeats.

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I'm sorry, did I give the impression that I thought anything was ever about talent? I know it's not really, except in a few performing type things where you have to be at least somewhat proficient or it's going to show up on stage or on the court or the field.

I think you're right that it's mostly jerks in charge of the world, but I have to wonder if that's more prevalent in larger organizations than in small ones? Do you have to be a jerk to be a leader?

I wouldn't mind if the jerks were far enough away that I had some buffer between me and their bullshit. My problem was I made it so close to the top that I could smell the stink, and I didn't like it.

Also, see the next post and comments therein, and let me know what you think...


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