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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12 Comments:

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Now, everybody knows it's entirely possible to be both arrogant AND insecure...

....which I think is what the NYT article was talking about regarding the younger american generation.

it sounds like the article's author isn't talking about TRUE self confidence or self esteem (even though he uses those labels which I feel are erroneous).

Real self-esteem is an intrinsic sense of self worth that has nothing to do with distorted thinking about reality (like over inflating one's intelligence or competence). A person who has a healthy self esteem does not need or desperately seek others to praise him/her. A person who has a healthy self esteem would feel perfectly fine recognizing and acknowledging that they are "average" in their job because if you have self esteem you don't NEED to be better than others in your job or school to feel OK or good about oneself.

A person with a healthy self esteem is not dependent on external validation, and wouldn't be a "praise addict" ... but this was another of the author's examples of supposedly having too much self esteem and thus I feel he demonstrates misunderstanding of what self esteem actually is.

Instead what he's describing is the opposite, which is insecurity and an exagerrated dependency on external validation which gets overcompensated for by arrogance and attention-seeking. This isn't "too much" self-esteem, it's actually "not enough"!

 
At 5:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, for what it is worth, I have been reading your blog on and off since the beginning and really appreciate what you write.

Just thought I would say thanks.

 
At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your honesty.

I wish you the best of luck finding a job. Please don't leave science, we still need you. The other day I was trying to think why are women needed in science. I came to the condlusion that we, on average, think differently than men. I know, some people might not agree. But, I am under the impression that they are like waffles and we are like spaghetti, have you seen that book.
For my husband things are separated in little boxes, for me everything is related to everything else. My personal life is like that for me, everything is entangled. But, at same time, at work I also think like that. I always like to find new relationships between things I already know, produce new ideas, hypothesis. For my advisor, the researcher I work with and my husband, also a physicist, this was a foreign idea. They wanted a number here and a plot there, that is how they did things. I insisted in telling a story. I would gather theoretical, experimental and computational papers to support my train of thought, pictures, and some pictures and plots so they could understand me. It took me whole year of their skepticism to finally believe me. I speak a different language than they do. It takes me a while to get them to understand me.
But I was right in the end. I still get entangled in my ideas, I want everything to make sense and be connected, but I know that they will read my work so I have to write in their language.
We need more woman in science to connect ideas, to produce new ideas, to tell a new story.

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 6:09, Good point. And I didn't really address it. I've written about it elsewhere, though: the question of how much positive feedback is reasonable to expect as a trainee, or necessary, when you're trying to gain confidence in a new area. Particularly a very discouraging pursuit like research, with a high daily rate of failure. A little praise can be an important building block, but you can't be too dependent on it, either.

One of the things that drives me nuts about scientists is how competitive they are, i.e. how desperately they need to be the best all the time. I'm not like that. I just wanted to be able to keep doing my thing.

One of the things that kind of pushed the breaking point for me was when one of my advisors said I should want to work hard for respect of experts in my field, and I realized that was NOT something that motivates me AT ALL. I gave up on that a long time ago.

Now I think that real visionaries aren't motivated by that, they're just trying to create something to fill a gap they see as important. They build the computer they want to use (Steve Jobs) or write the book they want to read (Toni Morrison). They're not doing it for what they think the audience wants.

However, there is a disconnect, because in the real world, at some point you have to sell a product, you have to get people to show up to your talks, read your writing, and um, pay you to do what you're doing.

I could not figure out how to bridge that gap without what I felt were compromises to my ethical values.

Anon 5:48, thanks! A little praise now and then never hurts! ;-)

 
At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi MsPhD - I thought you closed down this blog end of last year??

I don't know what made me decide to check back in, but I'm so glad I did because I enjoy your blog very much and I'm very glad that you're back!

(I couldnt' believe that you were really closing down your blog for good, not under those conditions at least... I always believed you were just taking a much needed hiatus.)

 
At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi this is anon 6:09 again..

well I think that since we are only human, external validation is necessary to some degree (even if only occasionally) to maintain self confidence if anything because it provides positive feed back and a reality check that one is indeed doing something of value to others. It doesn't have to be in the form of someone literally praising you either, just some outside sign that what you're doing is "right" or "useful" or worthwhile and not be entirely due to your own perception. Just as in our research we often cross check data obtained with different methods or under different conditions to make sure there is consistency where there should be, it's the same with external validation (it should serve as a cross check for our internal sense of accomplishment and perception but not be the sole source of it).

I feel this is one major problem with academic science as a career. In other lines of work, success or signs of competence is more clear cut and indisputable. If you're a doctor and your patient got cured, obviously you're doing something right or at the very least you know you're not incompetent and no one can argue with that. i.e. external validation. If you're a social worker and got a child or woman out of a domestic violence situation and into safety, obviously you're doing your job right and that's external validation even if no one is heaping praise on you.

even in tech fields in industry, validation is more clear cut. If you're an engineer and a new product that you were working on reaches the market (even if you were just a cog in the machine doing one tiny boring part of it), that's still external validation that you did your job well (even if you don't actually like the job at least you would know you're competent at it and maybe the boost from that would make the job feel 'better'!).

But as an academic scientist, it's much harder to evaluate competence. Unfortunately success as a scientist is defined as OTHER scientists judging you to have done well and somehow formally affirming it. In other words, unlike other lines of work, success as a scientist depends in large part on other people heaping praise on you. But these are often the same community of people that are your rivals for limited resources (whether they be jobs, grants, turf...) so the obvious conflict of interest is there all the time.

this is one reason I left academia. It seemed to me to be less about science and more about human politics and drama - past the postdoc stage I mean, because when you're a new postdoc, and before that as a student, you still have the luxury of being primarily concerned about the technical job itself.


wouldn't it be nice if scientists could have their own personal agents to market them and their research and get them new opportunities (like how actors, authors and athletes have their own agents). In a way, this is what I was told a postdoc mentor is supposed to be. Of course it doesn't actually happen that way except for a fortunate minority. And those are the ones who go on to have a successful career.

 
At 10:02 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:44, thanks. I don't know how often I'll be posting again, maybe very rarely, but I'm glad you like the blog. : )

Anon 6:09 again, You're absolutely right. And I think I've said before that having agents would make sense in a field this competitive, but it would require that everyone face up to a lot of ugly realities they don't want to face.

Scientists like to think they're selfless purists who aren't in it for the money or fame the way athletes are. For example, maybe you've seen some of these posts from angry science bloggers about how stupid it is for universities to invest in football stadiums, etc.

But in truth, scientists are absolutely agog over their famous heroes, many of whom are self-serving corruption mongers who are only in it for the perks and ego-stroking. Why do these idolize these jerks? And continue to heap them with awards and piles of grant funding?

Because many of these jerks create these false personas, they are Dr. Lady Gaga* of their field, but they aren't doing their own work. They have an army of postdoc slaves who actually write the grants and the papers, while all they have to do is show up and say "la la oh la la" on the stage and get all the credit.

... ooh, that was ranty! sorry! the real Lady Gage probably really does all her own work, right? ;-o

 
At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ms. PhD,

Although David Brooks makes some interesting points, I don't think they apply in your case. As tempting as it may be (given the lousy job prospects all suffering postdocs face) to start thinking: "Well maybe I can't run a lab and thinking that I can is evidence of a narcissistic personality disorder," don't do it. In my experience, even a twinge of self-effacement or doubt is search committee mood killer. It's perfectly fine to experience these feelings internally, but career wise you gotta sell the used cars, hard. Do that with a K99 or any other grant that gives greedy universities indirect costs and you will get a job, provided you science is solid which I'm sure it is. (Also helpful in this department are schmoozing, befriending chairmen, and artfully turning quid pro quos into blackmail-lite, e.g. phenotyping a desperate collaborator's mice and then calling in a larger job-related favor).

In college, I had the unfortunate experience of being in the ROTC, and as penance once for fucking something up I had to read "Attacks" by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The only thing that stuck with me from that book was his motto: "It's better to be the hammer than the anvil." Or, in other words, when in doubt mount an unimaginably large offensive. Unfortunately, this is what works in science, and it's always sad to see skilled and thoughtful people get left behind for not being sufficiently aggressive.

In the lab, there will always be people who want to take a dump on your head because they just want to. Don't worry about it. However, the fact that they've called you arrogant to your face is bad; it means you don't scare them. For me, being a smoldering power-keg was the secret to getting my advisor to deploy some of his social capital on my behalf. I don't know why this worked, but I recommend it highly.

Good luck and thanks for the excellent, semi-defunct blog. My advice: sell yourself ridiculously hard. And use all available avenues of social pressure (e.g. collaborators, department chairs who think you are hot, etc.)

 
At 2:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 3:39,

Thank you for the awesome pep talk! Wish there were more like you.

Sadly, I think this may be where the sexism stuff creeps in. I know several hothead men who have done well getting faculty positions and moving up the ladder. They are all scary smart and somewhat scary.

However, I don't know many hotheaded women who stayed in academia. I'm sorry to say that most of the hotheaded women professors I've met got where they are via the "chair thought she was hot" method, or couple hiring.

I wasn't willing enough to play the "I"m so hot you should hire me just so you can look at my cleavage every day, see I wore a Victoria's Secret blouse to my interview!" card. In my experience, cleavage might win the battle, but it always starts a war. So no, I didn't try a charm offensive, as such.

I naively tried using unimaginably large amounts of data as my offensive. I managed to get some stuff published, but not easily, but no job.

I'm one of those people - based on what I've been told, I imagine several departments have said to themselves, "Someone should hire her, just not us." So while maybe I could cobble together a few committees' worth of people who think I'd be a great asset, not enough of them are together on any one committee in the few departments with enough money or space to be hiring someone in my discipline right now.

And yes, I kind of tried blackmail-lite in the form of things my advisor and a collaborator or three wished I didn't know, but that didn't result in any big payoff. I had some success with quid pro quos for publishing and reagents and equipment, just not for jobs. Really, publishing was hard enough, I kind of cashed in all my chips to do that, thinking papers would be my chips to get a job. Didn't work out.

FWIW, I wasn't eligible to apply for a K99. So that just left me selling obscure models of cutting-edge electric cars. And you know how well that worked out for the electric car.

Just a few years before my time, maybe, but I don't think I can afford to sit around and wait for them to realize they just threw out a smoldering powder-keg of great ideas with the bathwater.

 
At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how does one be a 'smoldering power keg'? I dont' even know what that means? does it means you made your advisor think you were gonna go mental and come in with a gun or some thing?? doesn't this get you labeled as an unstable nut job? even so, why wouldn't the advisor just get rid of you instead of cave in?

I guess I don't see how a postdoc can possibly coerce an advisor into doing something for them, short of blackmailing them with photos of them in compromising positions or having an affair or something like that.

 
At 12:26 AM, Blogger Kea said...

There really is absolutely nothing that a compulsively honest, 35+ yr old independent woman can do in science (at least the physical sciences), unless she is romantically involved with an appropriate person. I keep trying, but there isn't even a fine line at all. I'm damned in every possible direction. When my previous, now extinct, low self-esteem self bubbles to the surface, I get told I should act like a man, because that is the only way to get respect. When I'm calling people out on their sexism, full of my now culturally acceptable self esteem, people look at me like I'm from another planet. I am frequently told to be more like a used car salesman, but my aspie brain finds this unethical in the extreme, and I just can't manage it.

 
At 4:12 PM, Blogger DAWN SIMON said...

nice post. Thesis Writing

 

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