Monday, November 18, 2013

Nightmares as flashbacks: perils of mentoring

Greetings, readers. I'm not planning to come back to blogging regularly, but have a few stories to share. Sometimes when they pile up like a traffic jam in my head, I think it's better to get them written.

Lately a few things in real life have got me re-living past nightmares from graduate school and my postdoc. I'm trying to figure out how to help other people avoid unnecessary suffering while not getting dragged down into their situations myself. I'm listing them in chronological order, which is to say if you aren't interested in the first little story, skip down to the next one, they're all self-contained.

1. The bad graduate advisor

I have a friend, we'll call him Jeremy (not his real name). Jeremy is a fantastic student, the kind of student I would have loved to have in my lab. He works hard, he works well with others, and he's an all-around great person.

We'll call his boss Derek (and hopefully I won't confuse myself writing with fictitious names here). Derek is a rich, relatively well-known dude.

Without describing any details here, it's a typical story. Jeremy unknowingly inherited a bullshit (read: unreproducible) project from a prior graduate student, and spent a lot of his time and effort trying to fix a system to make it work as previously claimed. Jeremy has had to reinvent a square wheel into something round, and get it rolling.

Derek has been pushing Jeremy to graduate sooner. He has been accusing Jeremy of not working hard enough.

Meanwhile, Jeremy would rather be doing a different kind of project, so he can publish enough papers to go on to a postdoc, and eventually have a job teaching someday. He's trying to do his actual project on the side, while scrambling to finish the work required to maintain the reputation of the lab, which as of late was based mostly on this highly questionable paper from the previous graduate student.

To keep himself sane and motivated toward his long-term goals, Jeremy has been doing various teaching outreach projects when he can. To his credit, Derek has been pretty supportive (my advisors always said no when I asked them to sign off on that kind of thing, as the university required them to do).

So I think Jeremy is going to be ok, because he's got a supportive thesis committee and a variety of people giving him good advice, but recently I reached the point where I had to tell him he needs to start making up his own mind.

You see, over time Jeremy had tied himself up in knots trying to take everyone's advice, even when it seemed to be conflicting. It's an easy way to get stuck and terrified, when you feel like there are too many choices.

I'm just hoping that Jeremy can get what he needs to move on: publications.

And that he'll choose wisely when it comes to his postdoc. And that in spite of my warnings, he will be one of the few who makes it through to a teaching position, or he will choose to leave his postdoc before he's completely burned out. I'm watching this with my heart in one hand and the other hand over my eyes.

2. The crazy one(s)

I have this friend, we'll call her Melissa. Melissa is doing a postdoc, and recently suffered what seems to have been a psychotic break. She lives about an hour away, and got it into her head that I'm supposed to help her sort out her life and career.

Mutual friends have helped fill in some of what Melissa didn't tell me herself, and are trying to help keep in touch with her family and make sure she takes her medication.

I don't know her family at all, and don't even really know Melissa that well. I'm frankly reluctant to get too involved.

I agreed to help edit some of her writing, but drew the line when she asked me to contribute more substantial ideas or even figures to her publications and grant applications. I said I don't support ghostwriting and won't participate in it.

In the process of helping her with her projects, though, it was very apparent that she's extremely bright and has done a lot of good work. Society needs this kind of science to get published, even if Melissa doesn't go on in this incredibly stressful career path. For now, in spite of struggling to handle the pressure, she seems to think she still can.

Unfortunately, in the process of discussing science with her, it was also apparent that she needs professional help of the mental health variety. Much of what she says is totally reasonable, some of it is outrageous but believable, and some of it sounds like a type of paranoia even I can't relate to.

My current problem is, I don't know how best to help her. Based on what I know of her advisors, I don't think I can intervene by alerting them to the situation. It reminds me of my thesis advisor's breakdown while I was in his lab, and how nobody believed me when I tried to tell them what was going on and ask for help so I could publish my papers and graduate. It wasn't until much later that other people began to witness his behavior and realized what I was talking about.

This situation is upsetting to me because I'm worried about Melissa and her work, but I also don't want to take responsibility for her health or career. It's also upsetting because it brings back these questions about how academia seems to actually foster situations where people can sustain unhealthy behaviors, at enormous risk to themselves, others, and the quality of science, and not get treatment until something catastrophic occurs.

3. The idealist

I have a friend, we'll call her Julie. Julie has been working for several years in a relatively lucrative field, but wants to go to grad school. She's passionate about her topic, which is not something you can do in an industrial capacity at all, and she is frustrated by the lack of resources and access she has as a hobbyist.

Yesterday she started working on her applications. Her husband is very supportive, and seems to think that getting a PhD will get her the access and resources that she currently lacks. He told me how she had tried to contact people in the field and no one would return her calls, but he thought that having a PhD would solve that problem.

I tried to tell him, gently, that even if Julie goes to grad school, it's neither necessary nor sufficient for access. I said you don't need a PhD to do the social engineering required. I said getting responses from strangers is a skill. He seemed kind of baffled by that suggestion.

What I should have said was, have you seen the tv show Castle? The premise is that Castle (Nathan Fillion's character) is an author of mystery books, who insinuates himself into a police department and proceeds to help them solve crimes. It's fictional, but you get the idea, and it's a brilliant one.

Of course it depends on what you want to do.

I asked whether Julie would need to do a postdoc in her field. The answer was a tentative "probably not".

And then I pointed out that even if it's not common right now, by the time she graduates, it might be. I explained the history of the postdoc position and how it began as optional, but over time became lengthier and required and eventually a dead-end holding pattern.

It makes me ill to have to tell people these things and see how, if they're smart enough to process what I'm saying, they realize I am a former idealist myself. I know exactly what they want to believe, and exactly what they're getting themselves into.

I emphasized that getting into graduate school is just the beginning, and doesn't guarantee anything about actually getting to do research long-term, whether you care about making money or not. Thankfully, at least for the foreseeable future, Julie's husband makes enough money that she won't have to worry about making a living doing what she loves.


After talking with Julie and her husband, last night I had a nightmare about the question of whether a PhD is sufficient. It was sort of a flashback to a trip a took during my postdoc years, trying to do some work in the lab of a collaborator, in a distant country. I was jet-lagged, and unprepared for what an alienating experience it would be. I had been focused on the work I wanted to get done on my trip. I hadn't thought about how lonely I would feel, or that I might not be able to finish what I needed to do, for reasons I hadn't foreseen.

In the dream, I ran into a professor whom I didn't know but who seemed to know my work. He proceeded to start drawing on a chalkboard and exclaiming to the students who were around, how great my work was and how he wanted me to publish another paper on it.

I didn't know how to begin explaining, you don't understand what you're asking. You don't seem to understand how much work went into all my other papers. Years of work. Really hard work. And I'm only here for two weeks. 

In the dream, everything in the lab was covered in brown paper towels, and someone walked in with a couple of dogs, and one of the dogs peed on me.

I woke up remembering how much pressure I put on myself. How badly I wanted to do the best work I could do. I thought of all the work I did with almost no resources. I thought about all the political warfare and other setbacks I encountered. And how, in the end, I'm proud of the work I did, but in terms of career trajectory, none of it paid off.

I thought about how you can't do this kind of science as a hobby, and sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can't do it as a professional, either.