Saturday, July 28, 2012

I haven't logged in here much lately, but I got inspired to revisit some old posts and try to organize some thoughts about this blog, and noticed that I received this letter on a previous post :

Howdy,

I'm a third year lady. After classes and quals, this is my first year in lab. This has been such a rude awakening. I joined a lab and naively believed that having a female PI would result in improved mentoring. My PI is just too busy to guide me and wants me to function at what feels like a postdoc level.I get it that this is the crash and burn method, but I'm feeling like a tippy-toeing cat. I don't have a masters and am constantly stalking older students. Yet I feel like I'm barely hanging in there. The lack of confidence is something I wish I could beat out of myself. I have no idea how it got so deeply embedded in my daily thoughts. I almost think it's equivalent to self-destructive behavior, constantly telling myself that if an experiment fails or was poorly designed that somehow this reflects my intelligence. The problem is that I already know what the alternatives are. I worked in industry and took a considerable paycut to come to school. Where I worked prior, the skill level was equivalent to monkey work. So, I know I need this degree to get the freedom to find that job that I care about because I still love science.


___


Dear Anonymous,

Sorry I didn't reply sooner - I don't log into Blogger much these days. I am working on a MsPhD book, though, so eventually I hope to finish that.

1. Having a female PI doesn't automatically mean good mentoring. Most PIs are sucky mentors, no matter which gender or how busy they are.

It's really hard to find (and be) a good mentor, both in the sense of the skills required to provide advice and guidance in a positive way, and also in terms of fit for you personally with where you are and where you want to be. That's true both in and out of science. Good mentors are very hard to find.

2. Having or not having a masters doesn't matter. Forget about it.

3. You are supposed to stalk older students and postdocs for help. That's how the "system" works. In other words, THERE IS NO SYSTEM. It's a total free for all. The people who beg, barter and plead for help, get it. They make it. The rest will drown. Make up your mind now not to feel guilty about annoying the crap about of everyone around you if that's what it takes to get the help you need.

For example, I have a couple of students I'm helping right now. They are sweet kids. They follow my directions. They take notes. They ask for help. This is really all I could ask for from anyone who needs help. That they ask nicely. And that they listen to the answers.

I'm going to skip over the confidence part because I don't know how much I can help with the psychology of that (see, for example, all the other posts I've ever written on this blog).

you wrote:


constantly telling myself that if an experiment fails or was poorly designed that somehow this reflects my intelligence. The problem is that I already know what the alternatives are. I worked in industry and took a considerable paycut to come to school. Where I worked prior, the skill level was equivalent to monkey work. So, I know I need this degree to get the freedom to find that job that I care about because I still love science.


So here's what I think about this part. Are you ready? Don't scroll down until you're ready. 






























1. If an experiment fails? 

HAHAHAHA! 



Here's the honest truth: 


All experiments fail. That is why they are experiments, and not monkey work. 

So step one is: Get used to failure. Don't take it personally when experiments fail. That's what experiments do. That's what science is about. And if you don't love failure, you don't know what science is. You have to embrace the fog of uncertainty and fumble your way through. 

There is no better teacher than failure. Failure is your friend. 



If it doesn't fail the first time, it will fail when you go to repeat it. If it doesn't fail then, it will fail the third time when you go to reproduce it for publication. If it doesn't fail then, there are 30 other experiments you need to do and most of those will fail. 


Get used to it. 


If you don't like this part of it, GET OUT. 


Get the fuck out and don't look back. 


Get out ASAP and go find something else to do (see below). 






2. know I need this degree to get the freedom to find that job that I care about because I still love science

HAHAHAHA!


Ok honey, I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing at how much you need to read the rest of this blog. 

To summarize: Getting a PhD does not buy you freedom. It buys you a ticket to the next round. 

Round 2 is postdoc #1. 

Then there's postdoc #2, 3, etc. until you:

a) get a faculty position (nearly impossible and geographically miserable)
b) get an industry position (extremely difficult in this economy, and geographically limited)
c) get stuck somewhere as staff doing monkey work (yay! Dr. Monkey Work!)
d) get out of science and go do something science-related like policy, writing, etc. (good luck finding those jobs) 
e) get out of science and go do something unrelated to science, and wonder whether it was worth spending so many years working so hard for so little money and even less respect. 

So ask yourself again, how badly do you really want it. Because it's not going to get any easier. 

Yes, the experiments will get easier. You might consider switching labs or adding a co-adivsor so you can get better mentoring. 

But the job prospects will not magically improve. Getting a PhD only makes you LESS EMPLOYABLE. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. 

3 Comments:

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Suz said...

"Getting a PhD does not buy you freedom. It buys you a ticket to the next round."

Sooooooo true. I wish I'd gotten that in my head better before starting grad school.

 
At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So true! Happy you are back!

 
At 12:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree 100%. To be a career scientist (or even to just get a PhD) one needs to not be devastated by failure and criticism because those are part and parcel of the scientific process. It doesn't ever stop no matter how advanced in experience and job title you get. Even big name professors still face rejection and criticism ( at their level it comes from their equally big name rivals..) eg i remember years ago my Phd advisor went into a deep depression temporarily when his proposal for a multimillion dollar R&D center made it to the final round of competition after over a year's evaluation process which he poured his heart and soul into only to get ranked second and thus not selected to get implemented...but he bounced back and carried on and succeeded in other equally ambitious endeavors, as one has to...

If one can't handle failure and criticism on a routine basis then one is more suited to a job that doesn't involve the unknown or individual competition. There are plenty such jobs that have little to no uncertainty and where you're just another cog in the machine so that personal competition isn't such a central component of the job.

if you want a job that gives you freedom and creativity then of course that's going to require putting yourself out there, which in turn opens you up to the possibility of failure and criticism.

You can't have it both ways - a paying job that has freedom and creativity but no risk.

 

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