Monday, March 28, 2011

Same shit, different day.

Over the weekend I had another one of these unpleasant conversations with a guy I already knew I didn't like. This one went like this:

Guy: So, what do you do?

Me: Well, I'm unemployed right now. So, nothing.

Guy: What did you do before?

Me: Science.

Guy: Biosciences?

Me: Yeah.

Guy: What kind of job were you looking for?

Me: Well, I really wanted to be a professor. I did x # of years of postdoc.

Guy: You really don't look old enough to have done all that.

Me: Yeah, uh, thanks. Actually, I think that might be part of why I've had so much trouble getting a job. Nobody seems to think I look like I could be a professor.

Guy: Well, you could always go back to school for nursing.

Me: Uh, yeah, because I'm so nurturing and I really want to go back to school. Great idea, thanks.


I realized later that in that short conversation, he managed to reveal that he clearly thought that my most salient features are:

a) not credible
b) too young
c) very female

So naturally, I thought of my blog handle, and the subject of my last post about change. Some things really don't change as much as you'd think.


I had a conversation last week with an older woman who is not a scientist, but she has a friend who is married to a scientist. She seemed to think that because her friend's husband was able to get a job in a flyover red state, I should be able to get one if only I'd be willing to move to a remote, anti-choice anti-gay marriage location. And truthfully, I don't think I'd want to do that now. Up until last year, I would have done it. But not anymore.

Anyway, she seemed unwilling to believe that it's orders of magnitude easier for an older man to move to a new department after already being on the tenure-track than for a younger unemployed woman to get hired into an assistant professor position anywhere.

Because she had the authoritative dataset of (n=1).


Oh, and let's not forget the conversation with the woman whose teenage son wants to go into the biosciences. She said he's working in a lab at the university!

I said that's great, I did that when I was his age.

Her jaw dropped.

And I went on to get my PhD, I told her. And I did all this postdoctoral training. And I can't find a job.

Maybe all mothers are like this about their sons, I don't know. She seemed to think her son was like, exceptionally gifted or something. And maybe he is, but I suspect she has no idea how many equally smart people there are with similar aspirations.

I tried to explain that the job market is very crowded, and will probably stay that way, so he might be better off finding a different career path now, while he's still young and has the freedom to look around easily.

Of course she seemed to think I must be insane, or stupid, or both.

So what else is new.

- InsaneStupidYoungFemaleUnemployedScientist.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Scientiae post: Change is the only constant

I wasn't sure I was going to write for the Scientiae topic this time around, but I saw this article by David Brooks in the NYT and thought it was an interesting topic. I think I have written about this in various forms before, so in that sense, maybe my view has changed, or maybe it is constant. Maybe I am at least partly repeating myself. But the David Brooks article is full of fun factoids, anyway.

The gist of what he's saying is that previous generations were taught to be modest, specifically

a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me .

He says our culture has shifted towards thinking we're better than we really are.

Now, I find this particularly interesting.

I'm in my mid-thirties, so I'm not a college kid (the ones he says are particularly proud) and I'm not as old as David Brooks himself (presumably the more self-effacing bunch).

So where does my generation fit into all this? I feel like I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.

But allow me to explain.

I went to a very competitive school when I was growing up, and one of the things that the school best illustrated was that no matter how good you were or how hard you tried, somebody was better than you at something, but everybody had something they were good at.

So while we were taught to have self-confidence (or try to, anyway), we were taught to be realistic about our abilities (or try to, anyway). In other words, you're probably better at some things than you are at others.

I am pretty good at the bench, for example, but I'm not good at basketball.

At all.

And that is OK.

I think it is ok for me to be confident in my lab bench skills, because I have worked hard for a long time on that particular skill set. And I think it is ok for me to say "I suck at basketball" because I really do and nobody would disagree with me.*

Having said that, I have received very strange reactions, both on this blog and in real life, when I exhibit any form of self-esteem about anything OR express any self-doubt.

In other words, I should probably just keep my mouth shut!

But let me give you a couple of examples of "Damned if I do or don't".

I have worked with scientists who said I was "arrogant" if I pointed out why certain experimental plans would not work, citing the literature and technical pitfalls and suggesting alternative approaches.

I have gotten similar reactions on this blog when I said I think I would be good at running a research lab of my own. That is my subjective assessment and prediction. Sure, I might be wrong. All I ever wanted was a chance to try.

On the other hand, I have worked with PIs who said I lacked confidence if I expressed frustration of any kind or, god forbid, asked for any kind of help or advice.

Similarly, I have had commenters tell me that I am too negative, and that I am too insecure, because of things I wrote on this blog.

And I've been told that I haven't been able to get a job because I'm either

a) not as good as I think I am
b) not selling myself well enough.

You can see my conundrum. It's a fine line to walk, and it's something that affects any job search. I still have not figured out that balance of explaining what I'm good at, and where I want to improve, but that I'm still the best hire even though I'm neither arrogant nor openly admitting to be lacking in any areas of the job description (even though I am).

Yeesh, that's nearly impossible to do. Especially for someone who is as compulsively honest as I am.

Ideally, in academic science, you would have someone (maybe a few of your former PIs) saying how great you are, so everyone knows and you don't have to sell yourself at all. Right? Isn't that the ideal?

But we all know that was not what happened for me. Does it mean I suck? Does it mean my PIs are arrogant and/or insecure themselves?

Maybe. Maybe they think I'm not as good as I should be, and that I would make them look bad if they helped me get a job. Or maybe they feel like it would be too arrogant of them to brag about their trainee? Nah, that can't be it. They have no problems bragging about themselves! Even though they're supposedly of the earlier generations that were taught to be self-effacing. They are very good at self-promotion. But I can't just mimic them, because that would be considered arrogant from a person my age. Right?

Now, everybody knows it's entirely possible to be both arrogant AND insecure, but I feel like I have a pretty healthy concept of what I can and cannot do.

Maybe I'm completely wrong about that, but I could make a two-column list and tally up all the ways I am competent or incompetent at certain tasks.

And anybody who knows me is aware that quite often I will say I can't do something and then succeed at doing it anyway. I come from a long line of people who love to vent, and I have a stubborn streak. I will admit I have a hard time giving up and grad school only reinforced my belief that I can sometimes do the impossible if I just try hard enough.

Does that mean I lack modesty? I'm sure some people think so.

*although I am good at Wii basketball, but that doesn't count.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Response to a question

At 8:26 AM, Anonymous said...

I went ahead and reported my PI. It seemed at first they could do something for me. But then I finally got the answer; PIs run their own separate groups and everyone has a different style of running their group. As such, we can't help you.
So, on it goes with a PI that wants me to work 12 hours a day (minimum), 6 days a week (minimum).
I am sick of it and wish there was a way out.
What do you do now, MsPhD? Did you find another job? Is it related to science?
Maybe unemployment even is not that bad.

I had the same experience, although in my case I was not complaining about the hours. I knew I was expected to work hard, and I did.

If the long hours are your major complaint, I say start applying for industry and government jobs. It might take you a year or more to find a job you like.

There is no academic postdoc lab where you can screw around, unless you plan to end up unemployed anyway.

To answer your question, I did not find a job.

The economy is terrible and all these statistics you hear about people who have PhDs being employed are bullshit - most of them include postdoc appointments in their calculations of "employment". However, all of us who did a postdoc and ended up with:

zero social security
zero unemployment benefits
zero "work experience" as far as anyone in the Real World is concerned

will tell you that a postdoc is "employment" only in the sense that you are making enough money to make ends meet (usually).

Universities consider it "training" or even refer to postdocs as "postdoctoral students".

The paradox is, postdocs don't qualify for access to the student rates for the gym, and aren't allowed to use the Career Center or any Alumni Services.

So look at it this way: you already don't have a job. At least you can pay your bills, right?

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