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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At 11:55 AM, Blogger Foreign and Female in Science said...

Dear Ms. PhD,

I keep reading your blog with interest; rarely do I find someone with whom I 100% agree on half the things he/she says and 100% disagree with the other half. Anyways to your post.

Meeting dislikeable, condescending, enamored by famous names miserable and stressed out people is of course horrible and way too common. But I wonder could you have not found a moment to interrupt and say hey here is the cool stuff I am doing that should interest you and then taken control of the conversation? Of course, if the other person is sufficiently self absorbed, they'd try to interrupt you but then you could feign obliviousness. And if they were talking about something you know you could just interrupt them with oh I know I did X and Y etc and bring it back to your work?

After you've occupied the meeting with what you thought was important to get out -- your work-- you could say oh look at how time flies when one is talking about what they passionately care and thank them for listening/considering your work. Then simply get ready to leave. You are also in a good position to send the person who set up the meeting of how delighted you were to have the opportunity to present your work to the person, and how you'd appreciate any further introductions to people who . If nothing else, no bad feelings would be created and one more person would have heard about you and your work.

And of course I 100% agree with the second half about job insecurity affecting creativity and productivity of scientists (really read postdocs and to some extent pre-tenure professors). And I don't think science will change anytime soon

At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HOLY SHIT! You know that meeting I had with a mentor? FAILLLLLLLL! I felt like I went in for the hug and got kicked in the face instead! Stunned. I crawled away stunned. It was totally a condescending lecture! I give up. I can't believe you had the same experience. Oh actually I can. nevermind.

At 3:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I nominate this guy behind this website for the peaceful protest award:

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Of course you are 100% right. I've never tried before to interrupt them and force them to wait while I talk. Knowing, of course, that they are just waiting for their next moment to interrupt me and speak again, and actually not listening at all.

Nope, never tried that. Why would I? Clearly I am too stupid to think of it on my own.

You're right, that would totally make all the difference in my career. Those people will always pull strings for you when you need help, because they're generous and helpful like that. That would never hook you up with the wrong people or a position that is a complete mismatch for your skills or interests, just because they don't listen or pay any attention to anything you said.

Oh and acting like them would totally make me a better person, too.


That sucks!! I felt like that a lot with my advisor. Let's talk more elsewhere.

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

So can you tell us more about where you are? (This is anon. 10:27 from a few months ago.) I have been also 'away' from the academics side. Most people think, oh, ok, you are in a job, so you are fine. I also ran into some individuals giving me the condescending attitude, as I still look too young, too. It's frustrating when you are trying to get work done. I don't know if I need to change my image, or what, but in academics, things were different. I didn't feel as though I had to interrupt, as you put it, so much

At 3:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, would really love a solution to the "wall of words" problem. I don't really know why it seems to infect science so, but I seem to come across it so often.

The second thing is certainly something I've become aware of recently. It just surprises me how science is supposed to be done on a short time-scale in quite often sub-par labs. It makes it really hard to sculpt some kind of career out of what you're doing without some kind of guidance. Which is altogether lacking as this blog highlights so well.

At 3:43 AM, Blogger Dr.Girlfriend said...

I think you should thank the person who set you up on the assumption that their intention was well meaning. It may also be that a great mentor for one person might not be a good fit for another. I got a lot from my postdoc mentor, but I can see why others did not. His style was not particularly nurturing, but he always had time for anyone who came to him. The result was that some people sat in the corner of the lab only to be shouted at every few months when data was not forthcoming. Those of us who engaged in dialog and sought out troubleshooting advice received the support and guidance we needed to succeed in our research. It was very much “if you don’t ask you won’t receive”, but when you did ask you got 110% back from the relationship.

I consider the most important trait in a mentor is that they want to be a good mentor. The second most important trait is that they are proactively trying to be a better mentor. And one of the first things workshops on mentoring tell you to do is to inquire about your mentees experience and interests. I like to ask a potential mentor what their mentoring philosophy is!

I totally agree that the nature of the postdoc (and to a lesser degree the PhD student) inhibits creativity and innovation. The truth is the postdoc simply cannot afford to take risks in a world where funding is short and success is measured in publications. The same is true for the assistant professor. It is not until you are tenured and well funded that you can afford to be creative – but then you have to consider the careers of you mentees when you hand them an exciting but new risky project.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:27 from a few months ago,

To answer the points you raised:

1. No
2. I've tried changing my physical appearance, that did not make any difference whatsoever. Haircut, clothing, etc. Did not work.
3. That's an interesting point re: interrupting in academics vs. not. I tend to think it's more geographical than academic vs. non-academic. I've met plenty of academics who did the Wall of Words all the time.

Anon 3:10,

Yes, the point about timescale is interesting. My field wanted me to either do
a) minutely incremental work
b) solve the holy grail problem in 5 years flat.

There's no in-between allowed if you want a faculty position.


You're right, I should.

I don't think this particular person has much experience, but anyone can give advice and usually at least some of it will be useful.

My advisors have always been available for advice, it was just that most of it was bad advice.

Your last paragraph outlines perfectly the hypocrazy of the system. We say we want innovation, but we either have to sacrifice legions of young livelihoods to get it, or just use lipservice while making no tangible progress.

At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Edward said...

I would not oversimplify communism too much. Some capitalist systems are good, some are bad, and the same is probably true of communist/socialist systems. I don't think the "capitalist" or "communist" labels really explain what leads to good governance.

The human rights issue is very political. Recently, Iran has attacked the U.S. human rights record at the UN:

For some strange reason I don't think this has been reported much in the U.S.

There is in fact an alternative nobel prize which is described here:

At 6:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster, his name wasn't Steve, was it? Sounds exactly like my grad school department head. No one not on a temporary visa ever worked for him, because no one who had any other opportunity to go anywhere else would stay in his lab for more than a week. One day Steve dropped by our lab and found nobody there but a couple of undergrads and me hunched over an instrument, scowled and informed us from On High: "Tell your PI I am looking to talk to him." Undergrad stares at him blankly: "OK, but who are you?" He was so visibly crushed that they had not recognized Steve The Great, that he did not bother to tell her his name, just turned on his heel and marched out in a huff. He must have heard us laughing from all the way down the hallway.

I am sorry to say, when you start looking older you merely become completely invisible. I have often thought that middle-aged women should start a ninja assassin or spying business, because we are so invisible.

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Edward, You're absolutely right. I didn't mean it literally, I was being a bit hyperbolic (as I tend to do). I agree that the US human rights record leaves much to be desired.

The Right Livelihood Awards sound really cool! Thanks for that link.

Anon, No, it wasn't Steve. =D

I completely agree that we should be spies. But I'm not technically middle-aged yet, am I? Yeesh, that's a scary thought.

I've just always felt invisible. When I walked around the med school buildings in college, I thought yes, I would be great at industrial espionage. How do I get a job doing that?

Because they let me in everywhere even without a badge. I guess I just look harmless or nobody sees me.

I'm not sure I could pull off the ninja thing, although it would be fun. I think I would need a lot of lessons.

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Kea said...

LOL about the ninjas. Actually, I always think of a Harry Potter style cloak ...

MsPhD, I have bad news for you. As invisible as I suspect you feel, you will undoubtedly be MORE invisible when you get older. I mean, when I was younger, many men would run a mile when they found out I was an accomplished physicist, but at least that is a REACTION of sorts. Being truly invisible, as I am now that the lines on my face are clear, is another thing entirely. I can march right into areas that are off limits to the public, without the security people actually seeing me. It's quite something. Perhaps there are always older women around making sandwiches and cleaning up the garbage.

At 7:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course keeping students and postdocs in a state of perpetual fear about their own job security is good for productivity. It gives them a good motivation to spend 80 hours a week in the lab, for starters. Creative thinking isn't really the point of these positions. The point is to crank out as much work as possible toward the professor's grant renewal success. A little creativity is okay, but we certainly wouldn't want too many earth shatteringly novel ideas coming out of the slave labor. They might get uppity.

As for the conclusion by another commentor that the really high-risk research can't be undertaken until one has the security of tenure: Well of course. Wasn't that the entire point of the tenure system?

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi I am probably double your age, not a scientist, not in or near academia.... but I enjoyed reading your blog (my first time.... I am a virgin clogger, er, a virgin blogger, one might say).

I just want to say you sound to me to be a sane, mentally healthy person, despite all of the obstables, and all of the injustices in the systems you are negotiating.

How does one get heard and noticed, without becoming like the people who condescend, the people whom you rightfully abhor?

I don't have the answer.... but I wish you well, and I feel you are the kind of person who will maintain your integrity, no matter what these goofballs place in your path. At the end of your life (though we are not rushing things) that (maintaining your integrity) is something you can be proud of.

Be well.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just sent in a comment 4 minutes before...

You may ask.... how did this person find my blog?

You may be amused to know I was looking up the correct spelling of this word (and whether hyphens were required)...... fuckedupedness.

And that is how I came upon your blog.

You never know...... Tee hee.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Kea, I'm sure you're right re: making sandwiches and cleaning up.

Anon 7:29, My feeling is that this mentality is backfiring, and it's a big part of why Americans don't want to do science. The younger generations are not interested in signing up to live in fear, and too impatient to wait for tenure. Myself included.

Anon 8:58, Thank you so much for your kind comment! That made my day. Maybe my week!

And glad to hear we are comrades in use of the noun "fuckedupedness". I think it's a very underused word. I'm also fond of the contracted version of the compound adjective "fucked up" = "fupped".

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good luck. I am a young female scientist as well and I have no idea how to make bloviated male PIs give me a word edgewise - I seem to do OK with women PIs. I usually take the advise of one of your commenters and assert myself citing the rolodex of papers I've got stored in my head. However, only a few male PIs have taken this kindly - it usually ends with them giving a bit of respect when they can't refute what I'm saying but I think moreso makes them treat me like I'm a scary bitch in the future. Sure I cite papers and don't always agree with everyones conclusions but I try to do it politely. But that just changes them from treating me like I'm a dumb, incapable dimwit to avoiding science talk and going on personal attack. I've just decided that scientists, especially older male ones from my experience, are some social enigma that I have not figured out yet.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Kea: Should you have an occasion to read any of James Loewen's books, he describes therein how Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Van Lew used their invisibility status as middle-aged harmless-looking women to spy for the Union Army during the US civil war.

Although I don't know how one would set up such an organization either, undermining Blackwater and its ilk sounds like it could be fun.

At 7:04 PM, Anonymous Isabel said...

"I am sorry to say, when you start looking older you merely become completely invisible. "

I get tired of seeing this, as I have not found this to be the case at all. Unless you feel invisible because men are not hitting on you, or the doorman at a trendy Manhattan nightclub is ignoring you?

What does it mean to say you feel invisible? People are not gushing over you? I found that part of getting older to be a relief. I hated being stared at and hit on constantly.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 3:29 pm, I agree, I do the same thing. The conversations usually go something like this:

Them: It's XYZ according to some unpublished presentation I just heard at a meeting in Europe, therefore that should be the title of your paper.

Me: Actually, it's ABC, that was published in 1984 by Dr.WaySmart. Dr.WaySmart did all of that, way before your buddies in Europe. In fact, your buddies really should have cited this earlier work in their presentation. Anyway I've read the original paper carefully. I'm thinking that can't be the title because that's really not the novel part of what I've done. Especially since your buddies in Europe are also going around saying they've done it, too.

Them: Oh. Well. You know it's really too bad you're such a difficult person to get along with. You'll never be very successful with that kind of attitude.

Me: Well thanks for that. But, um, do you want me to give you a copy of that paper I mentioned so you can read it yourself? Because I'd really like to continue this discussion about the title of my paper.

Them: You know this is why Hilary didn't win the election.


But really in this post I'm talking more about the career conversations where citations are not the mechanism involved in the argument.

I agree that these dudes really are a social enigma. I don't get it, either.


Maybe you're taking our discussion too literally. We're not talking about ogling - I'm glad that has already begun to diminish, although I still feel uncomfortable wearing anything remotely low-cut in front.

We're talking about not being heard. When we say invisible, we mean like when you're in a seminar and you raise your hand, and nobody takes your question. It's when they treat you like you don't exist, or you're irrelevant.

At 12:18 PM, Anonymous Isabel said...

That's what I thought, which is why I added "Unless you feel invisible because men are not hitting on you"

Again, I have not experienced being ignored, and if I was, in the situation you describe I would just speak up and ask my question or make a comment. Lots of people are ignored when they raise their hand.

At 4:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does it mean to say you feel invisible?

What Kea said earlier, literally invisible. Walking into a restaurant and the hostess seating the family standing behind you in line, first. Walking through a security door without a badge and not being stopped by the security guard who certainly stops everyone else. Waiting for a train and someone literally sitting ON you and you shouting at them to get off before they are startled and say, "gosh, I didn't see you there," although they certainly saw the man in the bench adjacent. You're at a meeting where everyone is going around the table clockwise, introducing themselves, and they just skip you entirely--and when you start talking, the next person just talks over you. You present data in a meeting, and it is completely ignored without comment even though it directly addresses some the the questions the men are hotly debating, and then they propose that someone, a young lady perhaps, do the exact experiment that you just presented not five minutes ago.

I am glad that this has not been your experience, but it certainly has been my experience and that of my female colleagues who are my age. What, do you think, is your secret to getting noticed?

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not related to the post, just dropping an interesting article here:

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Foreign and Female in Science said...

Dear Ms. PhD -- do you actually go out of your way to interpret things the wrong way?

I am sure you have tried the behaviour i suggest. I mostly thought you may consider going back to that behaviour. Of course mostly they will just wait for the next convenient moment to interrupt you and will not really listen.

Of course most times it will make 0 difference in your career. But it will make non-zero difference in how you perceive the meeting. At least you would have talked about your science. And whether your listeners like it or not, some of what you say will sink in subconsciously. And then maybe just maybe one person will actually hear what you are saying. And in this game you need one chance.

No they will not always pull strings for you, they won't be all that helpful. They will do something for you very rarely. But every little bit DOES matter.

Or of course you can keep doing what you are doing.

As for this making you a better person, how is it making you a worse person? At least it is making you more assertive. Granted you would be then termed the bitch but I gather you get that as a female scientist anyways.

In either case best of luck.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Isabel, are you a professional theoretical physicist or engineer? Most women have never experienced the extreme examples that we are speaking about, but they do happen, and they keep happening again and again once you find yourself far enough down a path that nobody else has ever gone.

At 9:41 PM, Anonymous Isabel said...

Well, that's a fair comment, as I am in the biological sciences. But I didn't realize that was the general experience here (engineering and physics). And we were also talking about real life, being on the bus etc.

I did have some awful experiences in a former ultra male dominated field in the entertainment industry, which I gave up on and wish I had done so sooner. I don't remember being ignored in meetings though, but it's true sometimes those contributions were attributed to males who were there.

A lot of those memories were recently dredged up thanks to Facebook, when people from that era started friending me.

At 7:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"prolonged job insecurity essentially induces a perpetual state of panic, which impairs thinking and creativity. "

Oh totally, I always knew this first hand. It makes you only want to stick with safe boring research and kills your sense of emotional investment in your work because you never know if you will still be around to continue your work in a year's time or not. This is what I hate most. I was bounced from one postdoc stint to another as funding levels waned so I was perpetually having to start but not finish projects and it just killed all my motivation.


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