Thursday, April 26, 2012

Message in a bottle

Wow, it has been such a long time that Blogger has completely changed the way everything looks since last time I logged in. Very disorienting!

Just wanted to check in and say hi, since I had a handful of genuine comments waiting for me (the rest were spam).

I'm in a very strange position, which I can't describe here on conditions of anonymity. So don't send me a flurry of comments asking about it, mmkay?

With that disclaimer, I will say that lately the best part of my job is mentoring grad students. It's so much fun watching them get excited about having their experiments work. Sometimes that's the only thing that gets me through the week. I've given up caring whether I get any credit for it. I'm overjoyed if they say thank you or, even better, acknowledge me in their presentations.

I admit I'm somewhat conflicted about encouraging them, but I figure they're in now, they might as well try to make the most of it. I do tell them to consider leaving without a PhD, since it will only make them less employable. And by all means, I tell them, DO NOT DO A POSTDOC.

Of course I can't help it that most of them don't listen.

The worst part of my job is working with postdocs. A close second is working with sexist PIs.

Yes, you heard me. In that order.

The postdocs span all the extremes: the clueless one who did a 3-year PhD abroad and is way behind the 4th year grad students; the miserable one who nevertheless got a prestigious fellowship; the hopeless one who happens to be a minority and might manage to finagle a job that way; the one who works way too hard burning her candle at both ends all the time, who reminds me of myself and for whom I fear deeply.

And so on and so forth. There are SO MANY postdocs. And so many of them think they are special. They are going to be the exception. They are going to work harder and it's going to be okay. Or so they think.

While the grad students are generally really appreciative of advice, most of the postdocs don't listen to much of anything I say.

Perhaps more infuriatingly, they still ask for my protocols, etc. Which is, I guess, an improvement over my postdoc lab, where everyone wanted to complain about their stuff not working, but nobody wanted to try my protocols at all.

So these postdocs still don't really respect me much, but they do want to use me. Or at least waste my time.

The sexist PIs are just hilarious. They absolutely refuse to take my suggestions, and then when eventually it turns out that I was right, they either don't remember arguing with me, or pretend not to remember that I said so. They always think it was their idea all along.

In the meantime I have to pretend like I don't mind that they ignore me, invalidate me, and give me zero credit.

But at least I only see them occasionally in meetings. They're not usually pestering me on a daily basis.

So it's funny because it's the same as ever, except now I have the luxury of not caring so much, because I know there's no future for me in this business. So it's not like I'm trying to earn anyone's respect. (It's very funny to me to think I ever bothered trying?).

Why bother?

I have two rules:

1. Lower Expectations. No, lower. I said LOWER!

2.  Try not to burn too many bridges.

Let's just say some days are better than others.

15 Comments:

At 2:10 PM, Blogger MPledger said...

I think time is going to be on your side. The baby boomer scientists are all going to be up for retirement soon and if that doesn't get rid of a lot of PIs then those PIs are going to be promoted in to administrative jobs which will leave gaps for new PIs too.

Looking from far away, from a different culture (where we only see the big signals and not the subtleties) - it's an embedded American cultural myth that if you work hard enough then you'll succeed ... but it's just not true "luck"/ "fortune" plays a big hand in the way things work out. The flip side of the "work hard and win" is that people take it as some kind of personal failure when they don't succeed because noone acknowledges luck or fortune.

Looking from far away .... Americans seem to all have a very similar and narrow measure of success. Perhaps you need to think about what success should mean to you given your characteristics, talents and interests and not what other people say your success should be.

And the final thing is that treat the post-Docs well, a) it's not their fault that they haven't learned it all yet,
b) they may feel the same way about you, that you feel about your PIs, that their true worth isn't being acknowledged because of their status and who they are and
c) it may be in your best interests anyway because you may be able to coat tail on to one of them.

 
At 3:30 PM, Anonymous jh said...

In my opinion not caring too much (and hopefully finding other stuff in life to care about instead) is a good way to get through some unpleasant or rough situations, but only if you somehow see an end to the current situation in a reasonable time frame... I hope this is the case for you!

 
At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's really great to hear from you. I think of you often and still hope that things work out for you....

 
At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, well, well... sounds like you were exactly the kind of postdoc that you now hate!

 
At 8:32 AM, Anonymous app said...

Hey Ms.PhD, good to hear from you! Good luck with the new job, hopefully it offers more security and less aggravation that the previous postdoc one.

On the topic of burning bridges:
Just a couple of days ago i sent an email to the entire organizing committee and international advisory committee for the main annual conference in my field to inform them that for this year's conference I will be "staying away in disgust" at a certain decision that they made.
Well, i don't think they liked me much anyway... :)
Actually, some of them probably never even heard of me before. Does it still count as burning bridges when the bridges didn't already exist?

 
At 9:35 AM, Anonymous app said...

Hi again, just want to comment on what you said about the postdocs who are convinced that they are special and that it will work out for them because they will work harder than everyone else etc: It's all too true, but from what I've seen these are typically the postdocs who it *doesn't* work out for. The ones who succeed (in the traditional sense) tend to be the happy-go-lucky "doing it for fun" types (or at least the ones who give the appearance of being of that type). These are the ones that the prof's generally like and support. I recall FSP had a post "In praise of B students" which explained the reasons behind this - they just do what they are told without thinking too much about it and without annoying the PI with their own ideas and displaying tendencies towards independence etc.

 
At 10:40 AM, Blogger Barefoot Doctoral said...

Just found your blog. (Where have I been?!) Your underlying unhappiness resonates with me, though the specifics differ. In a perverse way, it was nice to hear someone else voice my frustrations in a way I dare not.

 
At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but you do make money with your job?
good that you tell them not to do a postdoc.
remember i once wrote i went ahead and reported my PI to the director of my institute? well, they knew already. someone else, a very young technician girl had left just before i was hired. he drove her nuts, so much so that she got mental problems.
nothing was done about him.
with me. they listened and listened. everytime he did something awful. then they decided to involve HR. i was stupid and thought it would solve everything. it only got worse. and worse. till the point where i was literally afraid that he would hurt me. this was their offer; 3 months salary, so that i could find another job. from one day to the next i could leave. i never told him anything. "they" did.
hes still there and i had the hardest time finding something else.
i am still fuming with anger and feel so powerless. i want to do something. anything. but i dont know what....

 
At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back. I agree about the lowering of expectations. That has been the story of my life (I got my Phd 10 years ago and am still in limbo now). I even make less now than when I was a fresh new postdoc, how did this happen...

 
At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I recently stumbled on your blog and read all the archive. Thank you for your humorous writing style and interesting perspective.

I'm glad it seems you're happier now.

 
At 5:22 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

MPledger said: I think time is going to be on your side. The baby boomer scientists are all going to be up for retirement soon

I think I've heard that one before. I'm not holding my breath. Most of these people are going to work until their funding runs out/they drop dead.

Perhaps you need to think about what success should mean to you given your characteristics, talents and interests and not what other people say your success should be.

Well that would have been having my own lab. I never said I wanted to be king of the world. I just wanted to do my own research. Also, it would help if I were happier in my personal life, but that has pretty much imploded. So I'm starting over on all fronts. But I agree, in general Americans are very narrow in thinking that success= happiness, money, security. Maybe I should settle for my definition of success being the occasional comment on my relatively obscure blog? ;-)

And the final thing is that treat the post-Docs well, a) it's not their fault that they haven't learned it all yet,
b) they may feel the same way about you, that you feel about your PIs, that their true worth isn't being acknowledged because of their status and who they are and
c) it may be in your best interests anyway because you may be able to coat tail on to one of them.


Okay, I know you don't know me IRL, but of course I'm nice to them and I know it's not their fault.

To be entirely fair, I'm a nobody cautionary tale to them, so some of them pity me, and some of them just don't respect me. Most of them don't really listen to me. I really appreciate the ones who do, even if they're the ones who still kind of pity me.

re: coat-tailing on one of them, uh, no thanks. If I were that kind of person, I would have done that years ago. I wouldn't know how, anyway.

jh said:

At 3:30 PM, jh said...
In my opinion not caring too much (and hopefully finding other stuff in life to care about instead) is a good way to get through some unpleasant or rough situations, but only if you somehow see an end to the current situation in a reasonable time frame... I hope this is the case for you!


I've been trying the distraction route, it hasn't really worked so far. It helps to have small things to look forward to on a daily/weekly basis. Right now I can't really see what's going to happen in the future, but I don't plan to stay where I am forever.

@Anon 2:09, thanks!

@Anon 11:04, yeah, I'll admit that's partly true. But I'd like to think I was more respectful to the people who were in what is now my position.

@app, Yeah I've wondered that myself about burning bridges that didn't really exist. I don't have a good answer. Sometimes it seems to make a difference (see recent letter from Ashley Judd re: media coverage of how she looks). Other times I think they just shoot the messenger (see: every time I've ever tried anything like that!). Or maybe the Ashley Judd example is a bad one since they kind of have a bridge in a semi-mutually symbiotic kind of way?

oh and re: postdocs that PIs like, I think that's absolutely right. Creativity be damned, they really want obedience. I haven't read FSP in a long time, though.

@Barefoot Doctoral, you just voiced exactly why I started the blog in the first place. Thanks for making me feel like maybe it was worth doing.

@Anon7:37, I'm so sorry to hear that. I hope you can find a better situation.

@Anon4:30, it's all relative. I am very glad to be out of some of the horrible situations I was in before. I wish I had left sooner. But it's not all candy and flowers where I am now. I'll probably write a few more posts about some of the issues that have come up, although they're mostly variations on classic themes and sometimes it's hard to find the funny.

 
At 5:59 AM, Anonymous app said...

Checked out the Ashley Judd letter - very eloquent, but not likely to have much effect on the tabloid journos I'm afraid. Probably their reaction is "Yeah whatever, now let's get on with planning our next bit of dastardly evilness..." Come to think of it, that's probably the same reaction those committee members had when they got my email... So a very good analogy Ms.PhD.

By the way, since you mentioned you are in a starting over phase, how about checking out possibilities in academically developing (and expanding) parts of the world, in particular in Asia? (I expect you probably considered this already and it doesn't work for various reasons, but just want to mention it in case you didn't.) E.g. in the country where I am (you can see from the IP address) the govt has been putting lots of money into bioscience research and looks set to continue with it in the forseeable future. I imagine that must be creating quite a lot of opportunities for researchers who are willing to come here. South Korea is also worth checking out, since conditions there are reasonable and the govt is trying to make the university faculties more international by providing hiring incentives etc. Hong Kong and Japan both have (relatively) nice conditions for academics, although I don't really know what the opportunities are for foreigners there. And then there's China...local conditions for academics are still very poor in general, but I heard/read something about them making efforts to attract foreigners by offering better conditions in some places, not sure about the details though.

 
At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> I think time is going to be on your side. The baby boomer scientists are all going to be up for retirement soon and if that doesn't get rid of a lot of PIs then those PIs are going to be promoted in to administrative jobs which will leave gaps for new PIs too.

I wish. There's no way that we'll ever go back to the easy times of the 80s when anyone with half a brain cell could get a TT job. There are just too many fresh people in the system for enough positions to open up.

 
At 5:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's nice to hear from you! I was about to send out a search party.

I came across your blog in my last year of postdoc misery and read most of your posts in one evening. Reading them cheered me--even though they confirmed my suspicions about the postdoc mess.

Here's a funny video about postdoc misery. You and your readers might enjoy it.

http://tinyurl.com/75l48x9

 
At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HEHE

 

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