Sunday, May 08, 2011

Cooking in other people's kitchens.

I've used the kitchen to talk about lab, and I still think it's the best analogy.

Since it's an issue now with some of the consulting I'm doing, I'm going to elaborate a little more.

When I was a grad student, I really liked my lab in a lot of ways. The people who set up our workspace did a great job of arranging the equipment and we had plenty of room to do what we needed to do.

Having said that, my labmates were not always the best roommates. Not everyone was equally conscientious about replacing shared consumables . Also, some of our equipment was old and unreliable, and there were things we needed that we couldn't afford.

So naturally, by the time I graduated, I had a wish list of what I wanted in my postdoc lab. Some people think it's stupid to worry about this kind of thing, but my feeling is that if you're going to be running around in there 60+ hours a week working with your hands, the day-to-day stuff really does make a huge difference in how productive you're going to be. Not to mention how quickly you're going to get tired and frustrated and want to go home. And some projects will be virtually impossible without the right tools.

Looking back on my postdoc interviews, I asked the right questions. But my PIs lied. They all overstated their resources. For example, if I asked about a specific piece of expensive equipment, they said "yes we have one of those" but the truth turned out to be something more like "there is one in the next building over" or "there used to be one on campus."

Worse than that, after I joined their labs, they regularly dismissed my requests. They implied that I was being "high maintenance" and told me that I needed to be more patient or learn how to make do with less. Which was especially insulting considering that I knew quite well how to make do with whatever was around, but my point was that it was a giant waste of my time and expertise to make me do it that way.

I particularly resented the PIs who didn't understand the distinctions between doing things the cheap way vs. the right way. I tried to explain that the cheap way works sometimes, but the right way works EVERY TIME. Do you want it to be reproducible? Do you want all the iterations to be done quickly? Doesn't it actually end up costing you more money in the long run when it doesn't work and ends up taking longer/more iterations?

I think a lot of my career frustration has come from this lack of control. You know, like when you take those surveys for biotech companies, and they ask you whether you

a) evaluate equipment and approve purchases
b) make recommendations for equipment
c) have no input

The hierarchy in most labs is that the PI does (a), postdocs do (b), undergrads do (c), and grad students/technicians usually fall somewhere in the b-c range depending on seniority and the size of the lab.

I got really tired of playing the b string, especially when my recommendations were always ignored. I had to watch helplessly when Blond Guy wanted to buy something that I knew was worse. But nobody else knew that, nobody would listen to me even though I had more expertise, and the boss liked him better than me. So we always got what Blond Guy wanted, and I got screwed.

This really wore me down. I spent basically my entire career working with:

a) not enough equipment
b) old/broken equipment
c) the wrong equipment

One of the things that really made me want a faculty position was this carrot: that I would someday be able to set up my own lab the way I wanted it.

Like my kitchen. Sure, I might not have everything right away, but I could make the decisions about what to get and where to put it, and gradually make improvements.

I wouldn't have to make do with whatever cheap knockoff junk they bought at a flea market because they didn't know any better.

I think the kitchen analogy helps explain what I mean. It's one thing to visit someone's house and make do when they don't have what you need. Say you visit for a holiday. No big deal. It's just one day.

Now imagine that you have an ailing relative and you have to stay in their house and cook for them every day for a year. And this relative is sickly but prone to tantrums so you can't make any big changes without risking their wrath (or maybe you're afraid of losing your inheritance, ha ha).

Let's say they only like bland food, and you have to cook for them, but they won't let you make something different to eat yourself. So now you're stuck not only cooking bland food in a crappy kitchen, but you have to eat the bland food, too.

Does that sound like fun?

Sure, you can sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night and make yourself something spicy without anyone finding out, but you still have to put the kitchen back the way it was when you're done. Or you have to go over to someone else's house and beg to use their KitchenAid mixer every time you want to bake.

I guess my point is, it's all well and good to talk about being a "team player", and I can enjoy that if I am treated as a team member. What I don't like is being told to put up or shut up. I didn't sign up to do science so I could follow blindly along behind my fearless leader. I signed up so I could get in the kitchen and cook up something new and different.

Anyway, I'm writing about this now because I still have some residual anxiety about making suggestions and asking for things. I always ask, it just stresses me out. I was told NO too many times. NO was often accompanied by personal and professional insults about how demanding and unreasonable I was being just because I had asked for something.

Just being told NO is ok. Just being insulted can be ok if you still get what you asked for. But the repetitious combination was really degrading.

One of the weird things about consulting is that you're essentially telling somebody you barely know what they should cook and how to run their kitchen. Even when they are receptive, sometimes it's hard to get over that initial fear of having to break the bad news that no, you can't make creme brulee with a cigarette lighter.

Especially when you know the subtext of the contract is whether you'd consider working on this project long-term, and the only honest answer is, "Not unless you'll let me remodel your kitchen."

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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?

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