Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why couldn't undergrads do research?

A link via my last post led me to this article in the chronicle that says both the oversupply of PhDs and the shortage of scientists are myths.

And some really scary stuff about Bill Gates, H1B visas and Walmart. Definitely worth a read.

But there was one line in the article that caught my attention, because it implied that having students do research is a bad thing.

I'm not sure I agree. If anything, I felt like most of my structured education was inefficient at best, a huge waste of my young energy and time at worst.

Why couldn't we accelerate more students through required courses faster, and let them start doing research younger? Would that really be such a bad thing? They're curious, they have fresh ideas, and they ask good questions. Why not?

The idea that "casualization" of scientific jobs is okay is also lost on me. As I've written here before, I think it would make more sense to let younger people do scientific research like time in the Peace Corps, while they have the energy for the long hours, and before the creativity is beaten out of them by the conformity of too much school.

Having more older temporary staff is stupid. Have more adjunct/lecturer type positions is not the way to instruct students at the college level, and it's a complete waste of a PhD, not to mention postdoctoral research experience.

Between this kind of stuff, earthquakes, and generally crazy weather, it sure does seem like things are getting worse, not better.

But hey, Olympics, possibly healthcare of some kind.... oh whatever.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

See? You don't need me anymore.

I mean, clearly, there is no postdoc problem! No problem at all.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

mixed bag

I'm getting old: got called m'am twice in one day this week.

So much for my woulda coulda career: had a student say they wish they got to participate in search committees, because they would make sure I got hired. Awww. So touching, how little they understand about how things work.

Progress: got some writing done. realized I am writing the easy parts first. and probably over-writing lots of things that no one else will care about, at least not in such excruciating detail. anyway it's always easier to write more and then cut it, than the other way around.

still, the most emotionally difficult chapters are being put off for now. but things that were very upsetting or weird at the time really do lose their cutting edge if you wait long enough. usually. or get some kind of perspective somehow.

stupid computer problems: always seem to crop up at junctures when it makes no sense to buy a new one. and yet, always still poses a headache.

sexism is everywhere: spoke to someone who works in game testing for a living. he said a lot of the best testers are women, "Because they'll actually do the tests." he said women do all the work of checking to make sure everything is running the way it was designed to run. the guys don't do well in those kinds of jobs because they just want to play. I didn't say anything, because I couldn't think of a sufficiently witty response to his mansplaining. as if girls don't want to play. uh huh.

on exercising: and it really does seem to help. not as much as spending huge chunks of time away from evil people, though. it's amazing how much better it is not to have to deal with certain soul-sucking situations on a daily basis.

buffy: was pleased to find a reruns on MTV in the morning every day.

meh: occasionally have random thoughts that seem appropriate for the blog. will post them here, probably in this kind of very brief format, for now.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

a good news/bad news scenario for my readers

the book is coming along.

I started looking into Amazon digital publishing. It's either that or the sort of thing that FSP used. But I like the idea of having a Kindle book.

Have to figure out the legalities of using people's real names in a tell-all memoir. (read: I think I will need a lawyer)

don't know how much more blogging I'll be doing.

please continue sending your questions and comments and I will try to respond. I'll probably still see things on other blogs that inspire me to write here. For a while anyway.

the blog is not going anywhere. but I need to move on. when I can't even read that Dr. Brazen Hussy has job interviews without being jealous of her, or read the kind and encouraging comments from readers who say they hope I will get the job I want, it is time to stop torturing myself.

it's funny because one of the commenters asked why I don't have impostor syndrome about my ability to run a lab, like that was a bad thing. I thought that was weird and backwards.

but the truth is I am tired of living as a closeted blogger. Writing is one of the most rewarding things I do, I need it like air, but nobody knows I do it and nobody here knows this is me.

I kind of have impostor syndrome about being a writer, but it's backwards. It's closet fever.

so in the hopes of getting out of the writing closet, I am working on the book and plotting exit strategies.

thanks for your thoughtful input and continued participation over the years. it has been fun, and enlightening, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it this far in science without blogging and the support of the blogging community.

unfortunately, it looks like none of the sacrificing has paid off, and tenacity can't fix a certain amount of cumulative career damage.

so here I'll write what I often feel: maybe the most useful thing I've ever done for science was writing this blog.

good luck to you all

- MsPhD

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Response to comments on kool-aid post

@Anon 12:59, As one friend of mine puts it, they don't pay you to go to school unless they are using you as slave labor and you'll never get a job afterwards.

Keep in mind, most of us who are postdocs now were told that getting a PhD would GUARANTEE us gainful employment when we finished. Boy was that a joke! Little did we know it would not guarantee us employment in the disciplines for which we trained.

Doctor Pion wrote: A postdoc is not required if you want to take a teaching position rather than one where hiring and tenure are impossible without major and continuing grant support and a track record of producing publications and students with a PhD. Ditto for taking a job in industry, where more academic experience is not necessarily a plus.

I wish I could agree with this, but I don't think it's true anymore. Maybe some teaching positions, but since most people have postdoc experience now it has become a de facto requirement. Especially in industry. At least in my field. Maybe not so for engineering/the other end of the spectrum. Yet.

re: healthcare, me too, but it really depends because there is no regulation or enforcement. Many places still don't give vision or dental; or support dependents. Many still take healthcare costs out of fellowships, even when it is illegal to do so.

re: reducing numbers, I agree.

re: salary, it depends on where you live. In much of the country, yes $40k is not bad. But most postdocs are concentrated in the most expensive metropolitan areas, where it's really not enough to afford to have a family, much less buy a house.

Americans are especialy penalized since we tend to have enormous college debt to pay off, which most European postdocs do not have.

It's also interesting to note that many of the Scandinavian and Swiss and German fellowships pay much more than NIH standard.

re: distractions - so you're saying you didn't have to write grants as a postdoc? Well I guess it was a different era.

@Grand Inquisitor, I don't want kids. I never said that I did. But I don't see why my personal preference should be forced on anyone else. I don't see that childlessness should be a requirement for being a scientist.


Here's my opinion, FWIW. I'm not saying this is what I did, but objectively it is what would work best if you were just concerned about your career and not about your personal happiness in other aspects of your life.

1. Ditch the boyfriend if you want a career in science. Long distance doesn't work. Inflexible men are incompatible with your having a successful scientific career.

2. Your thesis committee is wrong. They are either clueless and/or biased by a conflict of interest. Moving away is much better for your career. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you.

3. You have to have at least one Really Big paper, and ideally multiple good papers, to get a faculty position at an R1 university. This is not negotiable.

4. Ideally you want to go to the good lab with the nice boss and get multiple papers. But this will not be enough and you will probably have to get very lucky or do a second postdoc with Powerful A-hole Boss to get your Big Paper and R1 Job.

Good luck with whatever you decide. No matter what you choose, you will have to sacrifice.

@Anon 4:45, Thanks for sharing that stat. Interesting to note that it's easy to talk about postdoc salaries in the abstract and end up arguing without any facts. $75k is quite a bit more than $40k. Yay NSF, boo NIH.

@Jeanne- Yes. Completely agree. Thanks for writing that!

@Anon 8:28, there are several things that go into this.

re: money, consider

1. Payscale is grandfathered. Newer postdocs are actually paid more than older ones. My starting salary seemed high at the time, but 5+ years later and with incremental yearly increases, I'm making barely more than first year postdocs are getting. It's unfair but it's how it works everywhere I've ever heard of.

2. Postdoc length is limited in some places. So you might get kicked out before you reach the 7 year mark. The few lucky ones get faculty positions at that point.

3. Most places still do not have or enforce postdoc "programs" and salaries are negotiable. That means some postdocs can be paid more, but it's a function of whether and how they negotiated. And we all know that women tend to negotiate less and/or we are penalized when we try to negotiate. My advisor acted like I was INSANE to insist on NIH scale, which was more than my university offered at the time. And yet, I know he paid his male postdocs above NIH scale, and he paid one of them an extra supplement because the guy had kids. I mean, WHAT??? Does that seem fair? I went to a better school and had more publications coming out of my thesis lab than any of the guys did when they joined, btw.

re: suspicions, consider

The qualities that make for a successful postdoc are at odds with the qualities of an eventual group leader. To wit, successful postdocs in my current lab are those who look like the boss, agree with the boss, do what the boss says, might occasionally inject a smidgeon of insight but generally have no ideas of their own (at least not ones they would say out loud). And/or they are good at sneaking around the boss, and the boss doesn't know it (okay so that last one is probably useful no matter what, if you are good at being sneaky).

A good leader has ideas of her own, knows how to make them work, and often has trouble following a bad leader just because they are in the position of authority.

I think the problem is fundamentally one of personality type. I am not a follower. I am also female. This is a lethal combination in most of America, but especially in science.

I'm screwed if I speak up, and I'm screwed if I don't. If I say nothing, I'll never get what I need. But when I ask for what I need, I am being difficult or demanding. It's a lose-lose proposition.

I am also devoted to mentoring, obviously, and I'm good at time management, or I wouldn't have this blog. I value communication and I make an effort to communicate with my trainees and with my advisors, with varying success. I try to deal with conflicts immediately rather than letting them fester, and I've gone out of my way to try to learn how to work collaboratively with different personality types.

Seems to me that my advisors have failed in all of these ways. They have often failed to communicate and assumed I could read their minds. They mismanaged money and time, they were bad managers and absentee mentors.

I did not need them to micromanage my science, I needed them to run a functional lab. And they couldn't do that.

But I am a difficult woman for wanting it and I am "entitled" for thinking I've earned it by working hard to get a PhD.

I thought a postdoc was supposed to be a time to just work in the lab, free of distractions?

So how come I never got to do that?

Also, I don't understand why impostor syndrome would ever be seen as a good thing? Is that because it makes some people, but especially women, less threatening if they seem insecure?

Seems to me you want people who are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, and who have made it their business to get the training they need to do the job they want.

Impostors are people, so far as I can tell, who are underprepared, and deep down they know it.

The other kind of impostor I've seen, and I do feel this sometimes, are people who have never had adequate role models, so we never pictured ourselves in certain roles. So then when we get there we suffer a kind of internal stereotype threat.

Again, not something anyone should want or look for - and so far as I can tell, its presence/absence has nothing to do with anyone's eventual success.

I think you're absolutely right that those who enjoyed their postdocs tend to overpopulate the faculty ranks. But it's not true that all faculty did, and it's probable that time has helped heal many old wounds. It's also well-known that people tend to rationalize what was "meant to be" based on the outcome of the events, not on how they felt about it at the time.

Apparently it's pretty unusual to be able to maintain an objective memory of of painful past. Supposedly it's more common among writers.

At any rate, I have not had the kind of luck you have had, and my luck does not seem to be improving.

I thank you for your thoughtful comments. I wish more PIs were able to discuss these concepts with an open mind.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

The kool-aid strikes again

Prof-like Substance wrote one of these polly-anna posts about how good it is to do a postdoc.

So I feel the need to respond, violently, but I'll settle for writing something here. And then maybe later I'll go punch a wall.

To the specific points:

That isn't a ton of money given the training they have had to that point, but get over it. You're being paid to do research, and in most cases, have no other distractions.

Why this is an inane thing to say:

1. It's not a ton of money, true. But what if you want to have children? What if you have sick relatives to care for?

2. And why, pray tell, does it make sense to pay us poorly for 10-15 years as grad students and postdocs, but then magically bump up the junior faculty to as much as 3x more than senior postdoc makes? This is just stupid to me. I don't understand why it wouldn't be better for EVERYONE if we gave small, morale-boosting raises every year. More than cost-of-living, but it wouldn't take much more than that to make us feel just that much less like slaves.

no other distractions

Why this is an inane thing to say :

Are you fucking kidding me??? This is just wrong. I have never worked in lab where I could "just do research". I have been expected to manage the fucking lab if I wanted to do research, which typically consisted of doing much of the PIs job, the technician's job, and if I was lucky, I could also do a few experiments. Seriously- if the PI is not training the students, writing grants, or helping edit papers, who do you think does that? The postdocs do, that's who. If the technicians are not taking care of the supplies, the animals, repairing equipment, and ordering, who do you think does that? Me. The postdoc. Then, if all the fires were put out, I might have time to do a few experiments here or there. But it was FAR from having "No other distractions". Give me a fucking break. What the hell kind of magical postdoc land are you talking about??

Moving around. Yup, the academic lifestyle can be somewhat nomadic and that can put a strain of relationships and make for difficult logistics.

Why this is an inane thing to say :

I'll say it again, because apparently you come from an independently wealthy and immortally healthy family.

1. What if you want to stay married?
2. What if you want to have kids?
3. What if you have sick relatives to take care of?
4. What if you have some disability or health problem yourself?

Get a fucking clue. Most of us want to have a partner, who also wants to have a career, and probably also has geographical restrictions. I think it's ridiculous to expect us to live not just a nomadic lifestyle- personally, I like to move every few years - but a monastic one. I think this selects for a certain kind of scientist. The ones who can't form relationships with anyone, much less manage the interpersonal dynamics of a group? Or teaching? The socially deficient ones? Yeah, that's the old tradition of science. It's not one of the traditions we should keep.

Lack of independence. Now I know that lots of people get into situations where they feel taken advantage of or where they are stuck doing projects they don't care about. That is why it is critical to do your homework ahead of time and know enough about the supervisor whose lab you are joining to determine if you can work with them and get the mentoring you need. Don't just take a position in any lab doing something remotely close to what you like. Talk to other trainees in the lab! Talk to former trainees. Is the lab a good place to develop as a scientist? That information can be FAR more important than the project. Put yourself in a place to succeed.

Why this is an inane thing to say :

I've blogged about this extensively, but apparently I'm not getting my points across clearly enough. Or maybe you just have to have been through it yourself to believe it - we have FAR too many scientists like this in academia these days. If you can't believe other people's accounts of their observations, what are you doing in science?

Why the "do your homework" advice is a bullshit cop-out blame-the-victim mentality:

1. Because we DID talk to people in the lab. We DO talk to former trainees. This approach is not guaranteed. Here's why.

2. Because people tend to try to spin everything in the best light when you ask them about the lab. I was talking to a friend just yesterday who was furious with one of her colleagues for talking about some of the negatives of their workplace with a visiting candidate. She feels it is her job, nay her duty, to make everything about the place where she works seem as rosy as possible.

Personally, I find it completely baffling and frankly dishonest. But they probably don't even see it that way- they think they're just being "positive" and don't want to sound like they're complaining. In some cases, they're terrified of the potential for backlash. Even if there is plenty to complain about.

3. Because when you're first starting out, you might not know what to look for. If people are "spinning", it's even harder. If you haven't worked in a bad lab, you don't know the warning signs. That's not your fault. Especially since there are still plenty of people who act like no bad labs exist!

3. Because PIs of really bad labs go to great lengths to make sure that visiting candidates don't meet with people who will tell them the truth. My own PI does this. If the candidates don't know to ask to meet with me, is that really their fault? I don't think so. I didn't know any better when I was a freshly-minted PhD. And if the lab website isn't up to date, etc. how do you even know who's missing? Especially if it's a big lab and you don't have time to meet with everyone anyway?

4. Because things can change. The PI might go through a terrible personal tragedy while you're in the lab, or develop a drug/alcohol habit. The lab might lose funding - a stressful situation that tends to bring out the worst in even the best PIs. The best labs have some rocky times, and it's never your fault if this happens while you're there. What are you supposed to be, psychic? Give me a break. Shit happens. What nobody tells you is that in science, no one will cut you a break for that. All they'll care about is your publication record- or lack thereof.

To the general idea that a postdoc is the greatest time, blah blah blah. Yeah, I've said before, maybe 3 years of postdoc would be just the right amount to do something new, learn a few things, have some fun doing science and maybe reduce your chances of running into something truly awful.

But the average postdoc length in my field is more than double that long. It's in your late 20s and early 30s, when your peers are able to have functioning, adult lives. They can do things like buy houses and afford child care and take vacations. Yeah, I know that as scientists we're not supposed to care about those things, but we're not robots and I don't see how being robots would make our science any better.

I'm not arguing that nobody should do a postdoc. I think there are plenty of people who benefit from the additional training, and broadening your experience can be really good, etc.

But I resent that it is required, but I don't think it's true that everyone needs one. In fact, I found the 4th comment on PLS's original post to be an interesting one, since it kind of implies that part of the problem with competition for faculty positions in the US comes from importing all these postdocs from overseas. I do wonder whether more American grad students are ready to run our own labs after grad school, since in most cases our grad school training lasts twice as long as in other countries. No wonder American postdocs are more pissed off. We're already older and more experienced, and then we're told we're complaining too much if we point this out? This is ridiculous.

My biggest complaint, however, is how long the postdoc "training" has become, and that the postdoc "period" only seems to be getting longer. Meanwhile, NIH has no plans whatsoever to figure out what to do with all these unemployable PhDs when the economy is shitty and the old fallback plan of "just go to industry" just went down the toilet.

I'm sorry but the "it's good for you" band-aid only goes so far. These are peoples lives we're talking about. Let's not tell them "oh, it'll be fun!" That's about as responsible as sending your high-school kid off to New York to live on the street and audition for shows on Broadway. Of course it will be fun. But will it lead to gainful employment?

My magic 8-ball says: Outlook not so good

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Ways to deal with bullies

As a longtime fan of Buffy and the internet, I'm finally getting around to watching Felicia Day and friends in The Guild. It's a silly little show, but pretty funny.

Somewhere in the middle of the second season, our heroes are confronted with a group of bullies.

Initially, their fearful and temporary leader, Codex, tries diplomacy. This only serves to rile up the bullies even more.

Then their regular leader, Vork, returns from his soul-searching to announce that he is a great leader because everyone hates him. I think the insightful point here is that if you're going to lead, you have to be able to handle the fact that you can't please everyone all the time. SO true.

Rather than trying to make friends with the bullies, or have a peaceful solution, Vork decides they need to have a throwdown.

But, ironically, Vork gets killed early in the battle. And Codex ends up winning and saving her team. Yay! Go girl power!

Still, I'm writing about this because I found the original outcome is more like real life. Negotiating with the bully will only make you look weaker.

And there are rarely situations where you can muster up the force necessary to confront and beat down a bully in science. More likely, if you're lucky, time will tell. But who has that much time? I don't.

From what I can tell, the only other option is to be sneaky. Don't try to negotiate, and don't try to fight openly.

Personally, sneaky is not something I do very well, nor is it something I enjoy. But I was thinking about this today when I realized this is how I learned to deal with my parents. They tend to be controlling and opinionated, which tends to undermine my confidence even now, even if they don't actually hold the purse strings to my freedom like they did for the first half of my life.

So instead I learned to lie by omission. Oh sure, eventually I tell them most things, but after the fact, when it's too late for them to judge or intervene.

My thesis advisor had to actually coach me on how to disobey in lab. I was instructed that, even if I was told not to do something, didn't mean I shouldn't do it anyway. (And then brag about the results later.)

But I'm reaching a point in my career where the degree of sneaky is really much greater than my natural affinity for this approach. Figuring out how to sneak your papers past the nasty editors and reviewers at the evil bully journals? Figuring out how to sneak your grant into a study section that won't realize they just funded you to work on something really controversial?

I really don't know how people learn to do this. Or are all successful scientists bullies and liars? I don't really think this is true, but I do wonder if the good people doing science have survived by working underground, like sneaky little elves.

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Sunday, February 07, 2010


I like this word, and I hereby vow to start using it.

Check out this post over at Zuska's.

And the one after it, about her dorky household, made me laugh too.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Oh my fucking god.

Check out this post over at Drugmonkey.

First, Drugmonkey makes the admittedly accurate point that if being a postdoc was just about learning how to do science, then yes 2 years would be long enough.

Personally, I think I already knew how to do science when I finished my PhD, but hey not everyone gets that kind of training in grad school.

But then Drugmonkey goes on, and I'll start by saying this: I agree with Sol Rivkin.

There are three major assumptions that Drugmonkey puts forward, which I find completely offensive and stupid.

1. The idea that a long postdoc should be welcomed.

Fuck that. Crap pay and no real independence? And fuck you Drugmonkey and CPP for acting like we're supposed to be thankful for that bullshit.

2. The idea that 5 years should be long enough to be successful no matter what bad mentors, etc. you've had. Give me a fucking break. I have 2 manuscripts sitting in the Journal of my Asshole Advisor's Desk. Not because they're not good, or not finished, and not because I haven't worked long and hard for the data and the writing.

"Success" means getting your work past the asshole gatekeepers. It has nothing to do with whether your work is good or how hard you worked to make it that good.

I mean, it's one thing to deal with asshole reviewers. But when your own PI is sitting on your work for years??? That's just crazy-making bullshit.

3. The idea that a longer postdoc means you're getting more training in, what, how to run a lab? How to be a PI?

Give me a hole in the head.

Anything about academic politics I've learned I taught myself. For completely idiotic reasons. Like, my advisors were never ever around, and never helpful. And, my advisors can be real assholes. And, my colleagues can be sexist fuckers.

Was that training? NO. Does this count as part of the selection process? Maybe - if you believe that the best way to select people is by getting the smart people to quit. Then all we're left with are the stubborn, the weak, the lazy, the hopeless, and the naive.

I mean seriously. Why am I still here? Because I was too stupid to follow my instinct to quit years ago. And then I was too stubborn to give up on my project. And then I was too weak and hopeless to think I could live with giving up on my project. And I was so naive I really though I could make it work. And I was too lazy to go find another career.

Did I really need a certain number of years to learn all that? NO. Will it benefit me to have all this perspective and wisdom if I have my own lab? Hell yeah. But I could have just as easily learned these things on the fly as a junior professor, which is how most people learn them (or not at all).

So I had all this time to kill while my manuscripts were languishing in oblivion. So what do I do? Go volunteer to organize postdocs, be on committees for women in science, etc. Was that good training for academia? I really don't know. At least it made me feel like I was contributing something, when nobody would let me contribute my science.

Is any of this what search committees select for? Fuck no! They don't even know I exist, and there's no mechanism for them to find people like me with all this collect wisdom and insight into how to be an awesome mentor, do awesome research, and not be an asshole to your trainees.

Please go over there and give Drugmonkey and CPP an earful if you haven't already.

Fucking privileged white guys talking about how great the system is? What. The. Fuck. I guess nobody has yet hit them with an anvil large enough to pound in the point that the "selection" of which they are so fond is the reason we still have so few women and minorities in tenure-track positions. If "selection" worked fairly or via the right variables, that would be one thing. Instead it's just psychological torture for most of us. More years of it is NOT TRAINING YOU FUCKING ASSWIPES.

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