Sunday, November 28, 2010

Douchebag Intrusion

One of the wonderful things about the holidays is meeting friends of friends of friends at holiday parties.

Unfortunately, the transitive property does not apply, so the people two layers of friends removed... might assume they are automatically your friends, too.

I seem to keep running into these business/salesguy types who, for whatever reason, are

a) surprised to meet a girl PhD scientist
b) hitting on me (despite the presence of Mr.PhD)
c) not remotely attractive or charming
d) trying to tell me that I need to "figure out what I want to be when I grow up"
e) think they're much older than me, when in fact they are not
f) might even go so far as to tell Mr.PhD how lucky he is

Part (d) by far annoys me most. I think it's mostly because I look young, and because of that, most normal people don't understand that 5 years PhD + 8 years postdoc = I'm already pretty much all "grown up".

And when they ask me about my career, I say well you know I had pretty much figured out what I wanted to do, and that hasn't necessarily changed. And I try to hint that it's a much longer conversation than I want to have at a party. And I attempt to change the subject and/or go talk to someone else ASAP.

I'm not sure how they think they're helping me by giving me these lectures, or why on earth they think I would be completely honest about something deeply personal with a perfectly drunk perfect stranger. Or if this is just an extended part of (b).

And here I'm trying to be polite because, you know, friends of friends or whatever. Otherwise I would just tell them to fuck off.

Mostly I try to laugh and shake it off, because it's happened to me enough times now that I'm familiar with the type who does this, and I don't take it personally because I'm pretty sure they do it to everyone, all the time.

Also, when we walk away and Mr.PhD simply says, "I hate that guy! He's the textbook definition of a douchebag!"

That always makes me laugh.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Back room politics: analogy edition

Article today in NY Times about a possible public safety database got me thinking about how this controversy is much like the current rift in scientific publishing.

In brief, there's a divide between the manufacturers, who don't want to be unfairly accused and/or undermined by fake reviews, vs. the consumers who fear that the manufacturers are just trying to make money regardless of who gets hurt.

This seems quite similar, I think, to parties who have gotten conflicting results and are both trying to publish them.

The manufacturer doesn't know if the consumer's experiences are real and/or due to user error. The consumer doesn't know if the manufacturer could have been aware of the potential safety issues and/or is already taking steps to fix the problem(s).

So let's talk about three options when it comes to conflicting data:

1. Just publish it: open access model, aka the public safety database.

Rationale: Who cares what was published before? Cite the earlier work, but say what you think is really going on.

Pros: Everything is out there.

Cons: It's a way to make accusations, which may or may not be backed up by expertise and evidence. Have you seen the movie Doubt?

2. Before publishing, contact the people who got the original results, and work out some kind of compromise. Aka, contacting the manufacturer first.

Rationale: The data can all be published anyway, most likely only the interpretations will be massaged, and/or both parties will benefit from the advanced exchange of information, while potentially saving face and mending fences.

Pros: Keeps everyone on the same page, prevents all-out wars, and avoids nasty surprises.

Cons: Gives the manufacturer (or your competitor) time to manipulate the situation to their advantage. May result in political pressure to hide data or interpretations.

3. Anonymous review. Aka, the current situation (and the traditional scientific publishing system).

Rationale: Allows the manufacturers to know who the consumers are and what accusations they are making, and ask for more evidence before having to address the potential problems raised by the consumers.

Pros: Protects the manufacturers from unfair or unqualified accusations.

Cons: Effectively silences the consumers if the manufacturers are powerful enough to block the data from coming into the public domain.

So, given a choice, what do you think the government should do about the public safety database? Do you think we should protect manufacturers, given the risk that our economy relies on them all staying in business? Would the whole thing fall apart if the abuses were made public? Is it better not to know?

Similarly, does it make more sense for science to remain as a manufacturer-driven economy, that is, one where the senior scientists have all the power? Doesn't the whole system rely on their expertise?

Or would it be better to have a consumer-driven economy, that is, one where those people currently referred to as "trainee" or "junior" are free to openly challenge the status quo without fear of repercussions?

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Should you go to graduate school.

A commenter writes:

I'm deciding whether to apply to PhD program in science (basic science research) or not. I've been unsure for many years, and time is tickling away.

If you could turned back time, would you have chosen to do the PhD route?

No, I don't think so.

How about Post-doc's?

No, I don't think so.

How hard was it to just walk away from the dream of getting tenured?

Honestly I never had a dream of getting tenured. I just wanted to run my own lab. I just wanted to be able to do my own research for a living, for a while. I don't even know if tenure is going to exist anymore, if you read the Chronicle of HIgher Education you'll see that tenure is... tenuous at best.

Deciding to walk away was a long, slow process of being miserable for a lot of years and thinking for a long time that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger... and then realizing that it still added up to a cumulative appearance of professional problems that I couldn't cure.

It took multiple friends and one therapist telling me that this was literally killing me, that it was eating me alive, that crying every day was not okay and that it wasn't worth being a martyr.

It also took realizing that while none of my so-called science "mentors" ever said I wasn't good enough, they weren't particularly encouraging, either. They were afraid to admit they might not be able to help me get a job, and one even told me I should quit. And maybe I should have quit when she said that, but I thought at the time (and still think) that she is unhappy and wanted to live vicariously through me leaving.

I realized I had to figure out my own limit.

And then I reached it. The second time my PI stabbed me in the back, I decided I had reached my limit and had to formulate an exit strategy, even if that strategy consisted of nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other until I made it out the door.

I've been following your blog for some time now. You seem to confirm everything that I have always feared about walking into the PhD, Post-doc, aspiring tenure position path.

I know it is hard -- based on observing grad students, post-docs, and those continuing to do more post-docs... many eventually go into industry, 1 actually got an assistant staff position (after over ten years of post-doc).

I might do this since I might have some of that slight chance. or I might have to make a DECISION now, and know that it is too small of a chance.

Yes, and even industry positions can be very hard to get, especially at the post-PhD levels. Especially if you have no industry experience.

Honestly, if I had to do it over again, I would have gone to work at a company for a year (at least a year!) before I applied to grad schools. It would be invaluable on your CV later, and it gives you a chance to see if you like doing research while having some gainful employment with benefits, the potential to stay on, and maybe even the chance to move up.

Or you might decide, after doing some benchwork, that you'd rather go to med school. I sometimes think I should have done that instead.

Or you might decide to do patent law or business school instead.

I might apply to professional schools (eg. PharmD).

My impression is that there are jobs for pharmacists, and that they pay well.

There are also lots of jobs for people with nursing degrees.

What are your thoughts, Ms.PhD?

Well, you've read my blog and my opinion hasn't changed.

I still think that the system is broken and very few people get through grad school and postdoc without regrets.

Some decide halfway through grad school that they're miserable, but they finish anyway and then leave.

Almost everyone else gets through grad school just fine but then runs into trouble during their postdoc.

Personally, I went in blind. I liked research and I had worked in labs, so I thought I knew. But I didn't realize that everyone was sheltering me and lying to me up until I went to grad school.

To this day, I think there were one or two people who genuinely believed (still believe) I would make a great PI someday. One of them told me, even as I was losing hope, that he thought I could be "one of the best". Whatever that means.

But I also think most of the people I came in contact with were barely hanging on themselves, and rather than telling me about their own uncertainties, chose to say nothing at all.

For example, I only found out later how many of my colleagues have been on anti-depressants.

A wise woman told me early on that I should "read between the lines". But I didn't know that she meant you have to pay attention to the silences.

Over time, I noticed that other students were getting better fellowships than I was, and I wondered why no one had encouraged me to apply for those or why my letters weren't good enough to help me win one. Or why grades from undergraduate classes seemed to matter more than the research proposal I wrote myself and got feedback on from my advisors.

I didn't know that many PIs write their grad students' and postdocs' fellowship proposals themselves. I didn't know until much later that I was competing with people who were willing to do that.

I wondered if it was that I wasn't good enough at science, but I don't think that was ever the problem.

It just didn't occur to me to find the Most Famous Dood I could find and kiss his ass to make sure he would write me a Most Glowing Letter (and possibly the entire research proposal section) for my grad school and postdoc funding applications.

I really thought you just showed up, figured out what interested you, and that if you worked hard people would notice and it would pay off.

But that's not how it works at all. You have to be strategic from before Day 1, you have to have all the political skills and then some family connections wouldn't hurt, either.

And don't kid yourself, that's probably true in all professions, to some extent.

I still think the most heartbreaking aspect of academic science is the hypocrisy inherent in claiming that science is the highest calling because it is supposedly supremely objective and ethical.

When, in fact, many of the most powerful scientists are neither objective nor ethical. There are subjective aspects to publishing, funding, and hiring, and there is plenty of room for unethical hijinks in those three areas.

And that is how the system determines who is successful in science and who is not.

Make no mistake, you will be competing with cheating, manipulating liars at some point in your career.

If you're bothered by that, then you probably won't be happy doing academic science.

Personally, it made me angry and depressed. I will not cheat, and I could not out-manipulate the liars. And I realized that for every one of these mini-battles I might win, there will always be another one to stress me out and make me more powerless and invisible when I lose.

And sure, I can blog about it, but there will always be trolls telling me I'm paranoid or that I should just put up with it like everyone else does.

Yeah, like everyone else who puts up with it by taking mind-altering drugs. Like that's a great solution.

Selfishly, I could tell you to go to grad school because I want more conscientious students to go into science and change things.

Realistically, I don't know if it's possible. I think that science is in a time of crisis (danger and opportunity) and it's anybody's guess whether things are going to change or just continue in a decomposing, downward spiral.

And I don't think it's fair for anyone to tell you it's worth investing your life in such a risky and potentially painful proposition.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My best mentor

This year has been the fastest year ever. I can't believe it's almost Thanksgiving.

I've mentioned before that my best mentors were not in science. I'm going to keep this short, with no details. I'm especially missing this person lately, and having crossed paths is one of the things I'm most thankful for.

She's about ten years older than me, and probably the most thoughtful teacher I've ever met. She's the kind of person who watches her students like a hawk, and then goes home and thinks incessantly about what they need to learn and how to teach it. She'll go out of her way to learn new things herself so that she can help her students with whatever they need. No one asks her to do this, and no one told her this was part of her job. This dedication really makes her outstanding.

Some days are better than others, but no one ever doubts that she loves her work and that this is the best way for her make the world a better place.

She leaves her crap, as they say, outside the door. And she expects her students to do the same. If she's not feeling up to the task, or is otherwise distracted, she'll have someone else take over her responsibilities, rather than flaking out or doing a half-assed job.

She expects the best from everyone, and accepts no excuses, while still being genuinely concerned and supportive.

She's ambitious, and sometimes works a little too hard. While I can see her struggling to learn how to be patient with herself, she's always infinitely patient with her students.

She knows who she is, and has her priorities straight, but she's not going to impose them on anyone else.

All of this, and she's not at all self-conscious despite being in a very visible position. She exudes a kind of confident calm that puts everyone around her at ease.

She makes everyone feel like we're each her favorite student, while giving everyone enough attention and encouragement that there's no jealousy at all.


Looking back over this list of warm fuzziness, I still think one of the critical problems in science is the central conflict of interest built into the assumption of a mentoring relationship with the PI of the lab.

The best mentors I've had were always people whose own careers did not depend at all on my accomplishments.

All they asked of me was my continued effort.

And we knew that I was free to leave at any time. But I didn't want to, because they were awesome.

What I got from them in return for my hard work was a generosity of spirit that I think is impossible in a system where the PI's success rests far too heavily on the shoulders of the mentee, who in turn is shackled to the PI even if they're not getting what they need to make progress.


I miss my best mentor, and think of her often.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Be the Visible Bitch

Some comments on the last post got me thinking about this question of women being overlooked, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally.

That and a couple of links from about gender bias in hiring, specifically related to how women are perceived.

There was a question about how to get noticed. I can list some tactics here, but I'm sure there will be additional feedback in the comments.

1. Wear bright colors

It sounds trivial, but wearing bright colors suggests confidence and makes you more visible than dark or pale colors. Go ahead, wear solid red, orange, or magenta. Do something with your hair, if only because it makes YOU feel more confident when you look in the mirror. Being visible starts with your wanting to be seen.

2. Take up space

Yes, I'm talking about mannerisms here. Sit up or stand up tall, don't hunch your shoulders like a shrinking violet. Be the tall poppy. As tall as you can be.

Smile! And gesture widely (not wildly) when you talk. Don't sit on your hands, use them!

Lean in rather than backing away, make eye contact with everyone around, and raise your voice. Pointedly making eye contact will help you figure out if people are hearing you or not.

At a group meal, move quickly to get a good seat, then pull your chair up and make sure nobody crowds you out.

3. Go to the microphone

At meetings where questions are taken from standing microphones, GO THERE. Practice. You might be nervous every time you do it, but it does get easier. Your first questions might ramble a bit, but practice and you'll learn how to be succinct.

4. Argue

Don't be overly nice and or polite. When someone speaks over you, call them on it. Practice saying firmly and loudly, "Let me finish."

Yell if you have to. Practice belting out things like, "Hey! I'm sitting there! Get your own chair!"

If you still want to be liked, there are comical ways of doing this so that everyone appreciates that you're just sticking up for yourself, not taking it personally.

5. Sit front and center

Figure out where your eye is drawn in any room. This depends on the lighting, so pick somewhere bright, whether it's near a spotlight, or near a window. Figure out the eye-line of the speaker or professor, and make sure they can see you. Again, you'll be able to tell because they'll make eye contact, and might even speak to you just to be friendly. You might be surprised the first time this happens.

6. Introduce yourself

Even if it feels somewhat awkward or isn't usually done. Pretend you're from a place where people do this all the time, even if you're not.

Say, "Hello, I'm ___, " and shake hands. Come up with a harmless question to ask, whether it's about the meeting about to take place, or the weather, whatever.

Practice being outgoing with everyone, and it becomes second nature. Quite often when you do this, you'll find that whomever you meet is instantly put at ease, and actually feels relieved. You made THEM feel more welcome because you went out of your way to think of their needs (secretly, most people are shy with strangers, especially in science).

Yes, it takes a lot of energy. You will be nervous at first, and then tired. But hopefully you will meet some genuinely decent people if you make a point of putting yourself out there. And then it gets easier.

In every case, be prepared to be rebuffed. Don't take it personally, just shake it off. Sometimes people are grouchy (think House, MD). Whatever, that's not your problem. Try to be relentlessly cheerful no matter what. Ideally, try not to care what these people think of you. You'll make mistakes, you might put your foot in your mouth sometimes, but that actually happens more often when you're worrying about it.

They might call you a bitch. But they won't ignore you, either.

Now I know, I don't usually sound like this on this blog, but I can typically pull off this kind of good behavior when I put in the effort. And yes, they do call me a bitch. No amount of being friendly or supportive of my colleagues will ever make that go away. But it's (mostly) because I'd rather argue than be ignored, and I'm often (usually?) right when it comes to scientific arguments.

Nobody likes you when you're right all the time. Especially if you say it with a smile! ;-)

I'm rarely ignored unless I choose to be in hiding. And sure, I have had times when I just wanted to hide, and I am very good at being invisible when I want to be left alone.

If you want to hide, by all means, go ahead. Wear dark, baggy clothing, sit in the corner, don't speak to anyone. No one will see you or give you a hard time... unless they accidentally sit on you.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Never mind about me, let's talk about you

As a follow-on from my last post, last night I dreamt that it was pouring rain and I was working in a space that was sort of a combination of my thesis lab and one of my rotation labs (like the buildings had been joined, Inception-style). I just realized I was going to have to run a new kind of experiment I had never done before, but first I was going to have a cup of tea and start reading protocols and deciding how to do it.

This was a pretty good dream. Especially since supposedly pouring rain usually means good things are going to happen; same for tea, apparently.


In other news, I met with somebody who was supposedly going to, I don't know, be a potentially useful career contact or mentor.

But this person epitomized everything I do not want to be when I grow up:

1. Dislikable
2. Condescending
3. Enamored of Famous Names while apparently being unable to tell (or care?) that their science is crappy
4. Miserable & stressed out
5. Hypocritical
6. Misinformed
7. Self-absorbed

I'm wondering if I have to thank the person who set up the meeting. I think I'm supposed to be polite like that, even if the experience was not enjoyable or particularly useful. At least it was thought-provoking (as many of the worst experiences are).

This experience reminded me of what I don't like about scientists. And why it was always so hard to find anyone I admired to guide me through all the pitfalls of trying to make a living doing science.

But it amuses me that everyone seems to assume that I don't want to continue working on what I worked on before.

I guess it's because I'm not in academia right now. There's just this collective assumption that it's a one-way street, you can only leave but never go back, there's no other ways to do research, and nobody in their right mind would leave if they really cared about their project.


But how could they know any of that? Nobody ever asks me about my work.

I don't know why. It's kind of baffling to me. I ask them about their career path, and they don't seem to have even the basic manners to pause in their pre-recorded perpetually playing self-promotion tape to ask me about what I've done and why it was interesting.

Maybe I just look boring.

But don't we all know people who light up when they start talking about their favorite things?

I was reminded again that, boring or not, I still look very young - young enough to be quite often condescended to by people who are just a couple of years older than me.

And all the while, the Condescenders don't have any idea what I know or don't know. Because I can't get a word in edgewise without interrupting rudely.

It's always awkward when I'm meeting with someone who goes off on a condescending lecture, and then I have to jump in and say that I know, and how I know, which often leaves them in embarrassed silence.

When I'm feeling magnanimous, I'll make a joke about it to charm them into thinking I won't hold it against them (but of course I'll make a mental note of it!).

And when I'm annoyed, I just let the silence linger.


So anyway.

I read something recently on the topic of job insecurity and how it affects the productivity and happiness of workers. It was yet another take on why we don't have more innovation in this country.

I was thinking about how this applies in academic labs, where the PI and sometimes staff have relative job security (tenure, etc.), compared to the grad students and especially postdocs, who are constantly in fear of being kicked out.

Basically the article (sorry, I don't remember where or I'd include the link) proposed that prolonged job insecurity essentially induces a perpetual state of panic, which impairs thinking and creativity.

Generalized panic, they said, makes it difficult to remain calm in relatively normal situations, like negotiating with a boss or collaborator. And it makes people avoid all but the most essential confrontations. They just can't handle the additional stress. So they're less likely to ask for respect or recognition, for example, but they're also less likely to report a coworker who is conducting dirty deeds, for example like stealing petty cash from a small business, or in science, the equivalent might be something like manipulating or fabricating data.

So clearly, if this proposal is correct, then perpetual job stress is terrible for scientific progress, and yet at least until recently, the thinking in academia was that keeping students and postdocs "on their toes", as it were, was actually better for productivity. I guess it's a kind of capitalist thinking about working hard.

And never mind about how creativity flourishes best in a state of relaxation, and is usually stifled under prolonged stress.

Meanwhile, capitalism may not be my favorite thing, but clearly, communism is not the solution. The story about the Nobel Peace Prize continues to interest me. I love watching China pathetically begging people not to attend the ceremony.

We need an equivalent for science, some kind of ethics award for peaceful protests.

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