Thursday, May 05, 2011

Three unlikely things

I'm still doing some mentoring and some scientific consulting. Some is unpaid, and the rest is underpaid, but it's better than nothing (at least for now).

I really had gotten used to being told nearly every day that I was wrong, or crazy, or that my suggestions wouldn't work, or that the things I worried about didn't matter.

So lately I'm amazed to find that people are seeking my advice (outside this blog, even!). They say my ideas and contributions are interesting and important.

Yesterday I had one of these nice experiences. I met with a group to discuss a project. Three things happened that I would have considered unlikely when I was a postdoc, and to have them all happen at once like this would have meant that hell was freezing over.

1. I pointed out a potentially important problem and the immediate reaction was, "Wow, you're right!"

2. I suggested trying something my way because it's much faster and easier and they said, "Your way sounds much better! Let's do that!"

3. They said they were really impressed with my CV.

Thinking back on it, I'm surprised enough that I felt this deserved a blog post. Why is it that these people reacted so differently to me than the people I was working with during my postdoc?

Is it just because everyone in the group was a woman?

Is this is how some men feel in academia?

Labels: , ,


At 9:01 AM, Anonymous FemPostDoc said...

Wow, thanks for this post, especially for the last sentence: "Is this is how some men feel in academia?".

Lately I have been thinking that this must be the reason why some men look stunned when I (a female postdoc looking to get out) tell them about the discouragement I feel in academia.

I think very rarely men experience academia the way many women do. They, for once, are less prone to double-guessing themselves, and in general display much more confidence in their abilities. On the other hand, I truly believe they get a different and better kind of support than women do.

For instance, in male-dominated fields like mine, this arises as a consequence of the 'best-buddies club', a kind of relation that these males rarely build with female scientists. In my case, going for beer together, doing beer&coding nights at the house of the mentor (only male postdocs/best buddies invited) and those kinds of things make me feel outside the group, and that reflects in my ability to function as a scientist around them.

My perception of my role in the group is damaged by the fact that I'm not in the boys club.

They are obviously oblivious to this fact.

Academia must surely feel very different (warm and cozy) in their shoes.

At 11:07 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

Maybe they didn't see you as a competitor? A lot of your past experiences made me think your co-workers were extremely competitive and/or scared that you might be better than them.

Anyway, glad to hear a happy story!

At 12:08 PM, Anonymous chall said...

happy to read good feelings!

It's amazing what some optimism from others can do! Glad your getting the mentoring and that you can get confirmed that you are good at what you do.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

Wow. That's awesome. I am also sort of taken aback by how that's pretty uncommon.

I obviously can't speak to whether or not this is "how it is" for men in science, but I would venture a guess that the difference is down to both gender, and the fact that you are now a consultant who has been sought out for your opinion and expertise, rather than a "trainee" (whose "expertise" is often taken for granted by virtue of the position). I don't think that these things are mutually exclusive - in fact, they may have a synergisitc effect.

In any case, I am very happy for you to be on the receiving end of positive feedback - how nice!

At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it that these people reacted so differently to me than the people I was working with during my postdoc?

This is what happens when you're a consultant instead of a staff member.

For example see the comment by Michael here:

"The aspect of contracting I've always liked, is the more you get paid, the more your opinion counts. I love how a permie can give an opinion for years, that is ignored by management. Then an outsider comes in and gives the same opinion and it's adopted as the official line and all hands on deck. Been a contractor - got lots of change accepted, went permie - suddenly nothing! WTF!"

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Maybe that but I hope also that now that you aren't being beaten down and torn apart in the rat race you are getting more confident in the way you approach things. People really sense confidence.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


doing beer&coding nights at the house of the mentor (only male postdocs/best buddies invited) and those kinds of things make me feel outside the group, and that reflects in my ability to function as a scientist around them

That sucks. I'm sorry that's happening.

However, most of the computer scientists I know are socially oblivious numbskulls who are either too shy to speak to women who aren't relatives (seriously), or they simply don't realize they're excluding anyone unless someone points it out.

Have you ever tried to ask if you could join them? What do you think would happen if you somehow did get invited? Would you go? Would you be comfortable if they made an effort to include you?

a physicist,

GOOD POINT. Maybe it is because I'm not a competitor!

I'm curious to see if the warm reception will change over time, though. Even in cases where I was initially welcomed in the past, people either love me or hate me. Some people just get tired of me being right all the time. (we all have our crosses to bear!)

I'm the person who tells them what they don't want to hear, i.e. "these data look good, but these don't, and that figure there doesn't support your model". It's refreshing, at first. But not everyone loves the onslaught of truth. And I can't always add a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.


Good point about being a consultant. Maybe that is the secret! I just wish someone had told me sooner!


I don't think it's that I'm more confident. That really was not the problem insofar as the way I interact with coworkers and supervisors. Yes, I blogged a lot about "I don't know if I can succeed long-term", but that's separate from how I have always done research. When I'm at work, I'm working, and I know how to do my job, and I know I do it very well.

I think maybe it helps that the culture of this particular group seems to be wildly different from where I did my postdoc. If anything, I think the members of this group are more confident, and their jobs are secure, so they can appreciate what I bring to the table - along the lines of the point a physicist was making above.

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

Dear YFS,

Very happy to see you still posting here, and it is indeed wonderful to see that your expertise is indeed appreciated out there.

Revisiting the blog after a while - will come back more regularly now.

I hope they like you enough to employ you on some serious $ - maybe contracting / consulting / project management is a good interim way forward for you? I think you would thrive in an environment where people present you with problems or strategies that need constructive troubleshooting, although I'm sure you would be better at actually designing and running your own projects.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thanks, Lou! How've ya been? Nice to see you here!

I agree that constructive troubleshooting is something I can do well and enjoy, and that I'd rather design and run my own projects than somebody else's.

I'm still not clear on exactly what project managers do. This project has one, and she seems smart and capable and does a lot of paperwork and mothering, so far as I can tell.

By mothering I mean, she knows everyone, she checks up on everyone, she helps, she reminds, she asks what's going on. It's interesting to see how her role supports that of the head honcho, and she's a trained scientist with postdoc experience, but she's not involved (so far as I can tell) in the scientific discussions, although she helps write grants.

I would definitely want to be more directly involved in doing the science and do less mothering.

I like their setup though, and I would seriously consider doing something similar if I were running a large group. Definitely an improvement over the last lab manager technician person I had to deal with, who just didn't understand much of what was going on around her.

At 1:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long time fan of your blog here. I'm very glad that not only have you continued blogging, but that finally some positive experiences are coming your way.

The one thing I've learned is that the people you work with are as important to your job satisfaction if not more so, than the projects you work on. I did a very long postdoc (more than 7 years) and got bounced around to different labs and teams as the funding/soft money sitautions changed. I spent several years feeling like crap every day because of the lab I was originally in. Being kicked out of that lab (due to pissing off the PI because I called him out on some professionally unethical behavior he was doing) seemed like being kicked when you're already down but on hindsight it was a blessing in disguise. My next lab was less prestigious, had less money and thus limited projects, but the people were a million times better. I actually felt happy again, and became much more productive despite not having access to as fancy equipment or other perks that come from working for a big-name lab. the difference was amazing.

I think that, from having read your blog for the past 3 years, that you're finally getting the recognition you deserve and I'm very glad. Strange how life has its twists and turns.

Also this will show your critics that you were not being whining or over sensitive all those years when you complained about the way you were treated in academia. Such critics would say you're just not capable of being satisfied with anything. But now that you've experienced something positive in a professional setting, this is proof that it's not you, it's them, as you were saying all along.

I know that you're not in the type of job you would prefer though. After my postdoc I got a job as a project manager for a small company doing similar things as the project manager you describe. I'm still trying to adjust not being actively involved in the work, although I have many friends from grad school who are now in similar management positions and who seem to prefer it. Even though I'm doing my job well (according to the feedback I get from my boss and coworkers), I still can't help feeling like a spectator and cheerleader on the sidelines (in addition to being the 'bad guy' to take the responsibility when shit hits the fan), and not the active players in the game.

At 5:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By mothering I mean, she knows everyone, she checks up on everyone, she helps, she reminds, she asks what's going on. It's interesting to see how her role supports that of the head honcho, and she's a trained scientist with postdoc experience, but she's not involved (so far as I can tell) in the scientific discussions, although she helps write grants.

We have a program manager for a big multi co-PI project and this is exactly what he does. He is basically the operational support for the PIs - responsible for making happen whatever the main PI and the co-PIs decide, but not involved in scientific content of the project at all. It is an organisational job rather than a scientific one, but it suits the person we have very well.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Sasha said...

I think yes, that is how men feel in academia. They have been and still are the majority, so they get all the benefits that entails. I think that is also why men seem so confused when a woman comments on the rampant sexism and/or inequality in science. Until you experience something of that nature, you don't realize how prevalent it is. [At least, that's been my experience as a woman in science.]

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous yolio said...

I have been having a very similar experience. Since going independent, I have found that the main people who want to hire me are women. These women seem delighted to have a chance to hire a woman with my skill set (it is a very male dominated field). And, they treat me with more respect and appreciation than I am used to. I gives me a sort of uneasy feeling, like I am in the twilight zone!

This reminds me of a story. Shortly after I finished my PhD thesis I signed up for a short stint working with a personal trainer. During our first hour working together she kept telling me over and over again that I was doing a good job---in the usual manner of personal trainers. By the end of the hour, I was on the verge of tears and I didn't know why. Afterwords, I figured out that in that short hour I had gotten more positive feedback than I had in five years of grad school.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I've had very similar experiences to the one you describe with your personal trainer.

It made me realize several things.

1. I thought I didn't deserve to be encouraged. I knew it was missing, I just thought I wasn't good enough (thanks, mom).

2. I had to admit I was angry to realize how much better off I would have been with a little encouragement. A little goes a long way.

3. I've had to adjust my responses to take positive feedback by at least nodding and saying thank-you. Instead of arguing or ignoring.

4. Outside of work, I recently had a problem with interpreting eye contact, positive feedback and personal attention from male peers who, it turned out, were just being friendly.

In science, this kind of behavior is usually only expressed in cases of serious romantic interest (!).

In other words, why would anybody give me positive feedback? In most of my life experience, people only ever did this if they wanted something from me.

In the case where I'm getting paid, that makes sense, and it's effective. I do want to work harder for people who seem to genuinely appreciate my efforts.

Perhaps more importantly, I think they genuinely respect me. It's not just a manipulation tactic.

So, we cry a little to realize that we're grieving for the time we spent suffering, and we cry a few tears of relief.

At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow-- this sounds so familiar. I, too, am a returnee (long time Anon 8:29 or 10:29). I also have been outside of things for a bit and was not sure about the positive feedback. It seemed that I didn't know how to take it--that there was some hidden agenda. I like how the person posting on May 8th spoke about 'recalibrating to the real world.'

I had a lot of family members also telling me that I wouldn't be happy doing anything, as well. At this point and while it is not my dream job, I am getting more respect and better pay and these things contribute to my overall increased happiness. It is amazing how grad school and postdoc positions affect a person. It's too bad that most people don't know about this; perhaps if they knew, they wouldn't believe it unless they lived it.

At this point in time, I am helping to manage someone who is apparently wanting to be in competition with me. I am 6 years her senior and with 8 years' worth of lab experience beyond hers. I, being a female, can understand her desire to do well, but at some point, this passive aggressive attitude needs to stop. I helped to get her hired and now I am starting to rethink my actions. I guess one lives and learns; it's too bad that she can't get beyond how she feels to be comfortable in her position. Hopefully, I can somehow diffuse the negative energy, as after the amount of lab time I have done, I am not looking for this kind of thing from another person. If things don't change, I will likely move somewhere else. Life is too short to deal with PA people.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 7:20,

I have to wonder what the situation really is with this person you hired. If you really have so much more experience than she does, and you're her manager, is it possible that you're just being insecure to even consider her a threat? Don't you have the balance of power in your favor?

Think of it this way: she CAN'T compete with you. YOU have to be the bigger person. You have to be in charge, otherwise you're not being a good manager.

Maybe she's an arrogant little brat - I've certainly worked with grad students like this. If that's the case, just wait. She'll learn the hard way.

Or maybe she's just a younger person whose life goal was to surpass everyone on the way up - isn't that the definition of ambition?

Sounds to me like the best way to shut down her passive aggressive attitude is to have a frank conversation about what her goals really are, instead of you making assumptions. Maybe she's just trying to do her best and not realizing how it looks to other people.

I don't agree that everyone has to be comfortable in their current position. If you get too comfortable, you'll never go anywhere in life.

You may have to give her some advice on how to make the most of her current position, including keeping you happy, as her manager.

At 7:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are totally right. The problem is that I was hired into another (postdoc) position and helped to make the decision to bring her in. So, I am not her manager, but am the person who has really helped the project to move forward. And that's the part that stinks... I am experienced enough to be the PI, but don't have the responsibility given to me.

I plan to address this, but will do so after she gets back from her vacation.

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Josh Verienes - Political Science MA said...

Patience! This is the key for success. In the long run, your way is the right way.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home