Thursday, January 08, 2015

Special Victims: the "she had an affair with him" accusation

The other night, I caught up with a friend whom I hadn't seen since before the holiday. Let's call her Mariah. Mariah is married, has a child, and likes her job. She generally seems in good spirits when I see her. So I was surprised when she needed to unload a story of frustration.

Mariah was complaining about some mutual acquaintances, and saying how she heard that ThisOtherGirl "had an affair" with OlderGuy (who is sort of a mentor figure in this situation).

Which just sounded like nasty, unfounded gossip to me.

Not to defend ThisOtherGirl, since I don't know her very well, but I tried to explain that I think this is something people often say about women they don't like.

Mariah said, "Oh, I didn't think of it that way. And now that you mention it, I'm not sure I trust the source."

When Mariah said that, I suddenly realized I knew exactly who the source was, and I knew he wasn't reliable. So it was probably just gossip.

But Mariah is really struggling. She wants more mentorship than she is getting, and she is looking for a reason why.

It reminded me a lot of the favoritism I witnessed in academia, and the office politics I've seen since I left.

Because what if OtherGirl is actually being harassed by OlderGuy, but everyone else is misreading the situation? It's so much easier to choose the default option of blaming the woman, like she was asking for it. Or trying to sleep her way up the ladder.


I was still thinking about this today when I watched this new episode of Law and Order: SVU .

SPOILER ALERT: I can't really say what I want to say without ruining it a little bit for you, so if you watch the show, go watch it first, and then come back. We'll still be here. 


Read more »

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On teachers and teaching expectations

Recently I had a depressing conversation with someone who went back to school, with the goal of getting a new job in a different field.

She was saying how she felt like it wasn't worth the money at all, and the quality of teaching at her school was very disappointing. 

She came from a background in an education field, so although I've never seen her teach, I could understand her frustration. It's always hard when you've put a lot of effort into learning how to do something, like teaching, and then you're stuck in a situation where you're paying for someone to do it to you, and badly. 

I imagine this must be what it's like for former hairdressers to get a bad haircut. 

At the same time, I was struck by how she didn't seem to have any skills for self-instruction. She wasn't good at searching the internet, or reading example material that I thought was very clear, and she didn't seem to make good use of other people who had offered to help her. 

I was thinking back to how I learned all of these skills, mostly during grad school. In some ways, self-teaching is the most valuable thing I got out of doing research. 

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Oh, nevermind me.

I have a couple of short stories to relate about men making me feel invisible.

1. My friend's husband who won't speak to me

Recently, we had dinner with a friend of mine, at her house. I like her a lot, but I had never met her husband. They are both here from Faraway country.

She had never said anything bad about her husband, just that he worked a lot.

I got the vague impression that maybe he should have helped more with the kids, but only because I wanted my friend to be able to go back to work. One thing she had mentioned specifically was needing more intellectual stimulation. But she felt she couldn't look for a job at all until they figured out their work visas (she assumed she had to get her work status through his application for a green card, rather than applying for a job and a visa on her own). And they needed to arrange for childcare.

So I had some trepidation about meeting the husband. I wasn't at all sure what to expect.

He wasn't there yet when we arrived. When he came in, he seemed nice enough, made eye contact and some small conversation.

I was relieved.
You really don't want to know if your friend is married to a jerk.

But pretty quickly it became clear that he wanted to talk to my boyfriend, not to me.

This was obvious to the point where he would ask a question, and I would have something to say when my boyfriend did not, but as I began to speak he would turn and look at my boyfriend and say something like, "You haven't?"

It was as if I wasn't even there.

Afterwards, my boyfriend commented that it was noticeable, even to him, that this guy was not comfortable talking to women, or something.

Or something, indeed.

It was all I could do to try to describe (I can't even come close to describing), what it is like to have to work with guys like that. Or interview with guys like that. Or network with guys like that. How many of them there are. What the consequences are for your career.

Afterwards, we talked a little about how we might hope that there are enough guys who are not like that, to tip the balance. How some of these guys don't realize they're doing it (but some do).

How it's hard to know what to do about it.

Hard for me, sure, but also very hard for my friend. No wonder she's nervous about trying to look for work.

2. The dismissive colleague

This is a particular example of something that has happened to me over, and over, and over, and over again.

The scene:

I'm working on something new, temporarily, with people I don't know. This might be a different lab or a different office than where I've worked previously. I have a specific set of tasks I need to accomplish. I do not have all the information I need. Someone says Dude is the guy to ask about this thing I need to do. 

Me: Hey, you've done Y before? Can you help me?

Dude: That depends, what do you need.

Me: Well I'm trying to do X, and I have a couple of ideas. I was thinking about doing Y or Z. Do you have any experience with these?

Dude: What? Why are you even asking about Z? Use Y. I don't even know what Z is.

Me: Um... Ok, thanks.

Later, someone else says: Hey, that Dude can give you Stuff to help you get started.

Me: I asked him already. He didn't give me anything.

Them: That's strange, he's done Y. He didn't give you Stuff? Why didn't he give you Stuff?

Me: I don't know. I didn't know that Stuff existed. He didn't mention it.

Later, after banging my head for a day or two, I try again. 

Me (to the Dude): Hey, I heard a rumor that you have Stuff related to Y, that maybe I could use?

Dude: Oh yeah, I have that. Why are you asking about that? What are you doing?

Me (for the second time): I'm doing X. That's why I was asking about Y.

Dude: Nobody told me you were doing that.

Um... I did. I told you. It was the first thing I said to you. 

I'll admit I didn't always ask the best, most specific question the first time, but at first I never knew what to ask. And Dude is usually the type who never volunteers any information.

Mostly I get annoyed at having to repeat myself, because invariably Dude didn't listen to me at all.

And it always turned out that my manager (this happened more than once, with different managers), who was supposed to have arranged things for me ahead of time, had not said anything to anyone about what I was doing or what I would need.

So when I showed up and started asking for Stuff, it was the first anyone had heard about it.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Response to old comments on "Dear PI, it's your fault I'm depressed"

One of my previous posts is still getting comments, but blogger won't let me write a long reply all at once.

So here are some replies.

I realized this is really late to reply, but why not, I have time.

Daisy Mae,

Yes, of course, ask forgiveness rather than permission is a great way to go, if you don't require funding to do what you need to do without permission. I needed funding. I also needed to submit my papers, and for that I had to have permission.


I have seen plenty of labs change direction because of things that students did as side projects, whether they were undergrads or grad students. Lots of PIs have zero (time for) creativity of their own, so the smart ones rely on students' risky projects as a way to drum up new ideas.

It's too bad so many labs are one-trick pony houses.

Personally, I think it makes more sense to interview students to see how they think. What they worked on before is just a vehicle for discussing that.

I didn't end up working with any of the PIs I met with on my interviews, anyway. I rotated in a different lab, and that ended up being where I did my thesis.


I always had other PIs collaborating with me, they just could not afford to pay me, and could not/would not stand up to my PI on my behalf. This is what happens when you work your way up the chain to try to work for somebody Important Enough to help get you a job, and that person is totally unreasonable and resentful. Basically, he was convinced I was wrong until the very end, when it was too late for anyone to do anything. All the PIs in my field were too busy just barely staying afloat themselves. The last thing they wanted was more competition for funding.

Anon 10:29,

I didn't need help writing the papers. I needed to be allowed to publish them. There's a big difference.

Anon 7:05,

that's what I ended up doing: leaving. Fuck science and trying to be a martyr for women in science. Nobody appreciates it anyway.

Anon 11:59,

1. I worked with someone once who used your "deliberately show the PI disappointing results" approach. She was faking the data. Please don't advocate for people to do that.

My job was made harder when I got stuff working on the first try, and my PI didn't believe me at first, because the previous person had "shown" repeatedly that she couldn't get it to work!

2. Yes, if you can recruit other people, do so. In my field, that was not an option, and for my project, I needed people from other fields. It's just not always that simple.

3. Also, don't tell people to avoid their advisors. That's not good advice.

Definitely reschedule meetings if you think they won't be productive, but mostly, avoiding communication will only make things worse.

I agree that it's often better to avoid showing incomplete work in the hopes of getting useful feedback, because it can really derail your confidence and your thought process. Better to wait and show the most finished product you can, especially if your advisor is like mine was.

4. Absolutely, look for other activities and go ahead and start applying for jobs. I did that. It did help me feel more confident about graduating, although it didn't solve any of my other problems with my advisor.

5. I'm amused that you think I didn't try to pick my battles (?). I fought hard on what journals, maybe I should have fought harder but I was convinced I would get recommendation letters saying I was "too bitchy" if I fought too hard. I'm pretty sure that happened anyway! But it really seemed like there was no way to win. I worked for stubborn jerks, what can I say. The more I argued, the more they dug in, just for the sake of not wanting to let me even try. The thing that baffled me was, what's the big deal with trying? Worst case, you get some mediocre reviews, waste a few weeks, and submit somewhere else?

In one case, I realize now, I think my advisor knew we were about to get scooped. But he couldn't just tell me that (because of how he knew), so instead he just came off seeming like a jerk.


6. I did fight for corresponding author, which was somewhat useful, but ultimately not as much as I would have hoped.

It's nice that you could volunteer to show how "competent" you are.

I don't think anyone ever questioned my competence, intelligence, work ethic, or creativity. If they did, fuck them.

But it's hard to use volunteer work to show what a non-bitchy person you are, if that's all it takes to poison you as a candidate. I did lots of outreach, committee work, etc.

Still ironic that I went into science thinking it wouldn't matter as much whether people liked me, as it would it other professions. Turns out it might be even worse in science than other fields. Little did I know.

Everybody else - thanks, glad you liked the post.

epilogue: I never did take any Rx antidepressants. I'm sure for some people, it helps.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Not good enough.

Is it just me? How come, in some fields, it's perfectly acceptable to put out absolute garbage?

I'm talking about everything from poorly formatted files, complete lack of replicates or error bars, ugly raw excel plots, to absolutely fabricated data visualizations with way too many variables and complicated crap thrown in just to look artistic.

If I brought anything remotely like that to my advisors at any time from grad school through postdoc, I would've been shot on sight.

I keep thinking about how my advisors had no fucking clue what to do with data in unusable file formats. Even if it was the default output from equipment we used all the time. And how come the companies that made that equipment somehow managed to stay in business, in spite of their complete lack of understanding of what their customers actually needed.

And if someone showed up to lab meeting with a graph of n=1 attempt with no replicates, any of my advisors would have just laughed and tell them to do it again in triplicate.

How, if I tried to make a figure with a different kind of graph, as a clever way to represent trends in the data, they would simply refuse to even try to understand what was going on.

But I see people doing this all the time in other fields, and when I point out how uninterpretable and useless it is, everyone looks at me like I'm the one who's being "too demanding".

I don't get why it's good enough for everyone else.

I can only assume that most people don't know any better, which means they don't appreciate that it's worth taking the time to develop tools to convert data into usable formats. Or to do an experiment correctly. Or to figure out how to represent data clearly and simply.

The other thing I keep thinking about is how, when I was struggling to do all of these things at an exceptional level to please my impossible advisors, they were rarely any help. But because of the way most people interpret authorship, they still get all the credit.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Color and size: still controversial topics

This week, a friend asked whether I had an opinion on the infighting among feminists on the internet. I said, what? Which got me thinking about how I'm so tired of controversy. Why can't we all just get along?

For example, I was just reading this surprisingly controversial post by a somewhat clueless writer, and I just wanted to say that I think (?) I can see both sides. I'm not completely sure why it's gotten so much attention. There is so much writing on the internet, I don't really understand why some things attract a lot of traffic and comments and others don't.

Anyway. It's interesting how blogging has made me, if anything, less sensitive to people's clueless use of language. More aware, but less sensitive.

For those who haven't seen it, the original post in question was written by a young woman experiencing a misplaced and kind of condescending Privileged White Guilt. Basically, she writes that she was uncomfortable while witnessing a young, overweight black woman struggling in her yoga class. It attempts to be a thought piece about race, socioeconomic status, and body image.

I thought the post was well-intentioned, especially if we assume the author is new to blogging and the editor of the site, if they saw the piece at all, is white and clueless herself and/or maybe wanted (?) to stir up controversy.

But I can see why black women, for example, this author , were annoyed.

Having said that, I always do the experiment where I swap genders to see how I would feel if it were me. What if some guy wrote a piece about me being the only girl in my martial arts class? If he was trying to exhibit compassion for me, would I be insulted? Probably not, actually.

But maybe it's not like that at all. It's always dangerous to assume what other people intend by their actions or behavior, whether you happen to be correct or not. I should know, because I've often correctly interpreted people's behavior toward me, even when it seemed like I was making unfair assumptions. But in the process of doing that and writing this blog, I've learned two things that I think have improved both my ability to analyze human behavior, and my writing. First, it's important to recognize the possibility of being wrong (the null hypothesis, if you will). Second, it's important to separate your observations into variables.

1. Beginning something new is always hard. The new person in yoga class is a beginner. Maybe that should have been the point of the piece? Compassion for people starting out on a path that you've already been down, knowing how hard it is? But the author didn't write about that.

2. We should try harder to be inclusive of all skin colors.  Personally, I think the piece might have worked just as well if the author had omitted the description of the new student as "black", because part of the problem was the (perhaps inadvertent) insinuation that all black women are overweight (?). Which is ridiculous.

The author could have simply written more about why her studio isn't more diverse, why that matters to her, and what would have to happen for diversity to be a priority.

Or, she could have written a really honest piece about how she knows nothing about black culture, to the point of being scared when she sees black people, and feels guilty about her socioeconomic status and racial privilege. That would have been really brave, if it's the case (and her writing certainly implies that it is). But she didn't manage to actually focus on that.

3. Does size matter? I have personally witnessed overweight beginners (men and women of all races, actually, at my yoga studio), who seemed uncomfortable, or downright miserable. I'm not obese, but I have myself felt like the fat girl in class. It's all relative.

Maybe the author's self-conscious writing about her own "skinny white girl" body image was clumsily conflated with her perhaps subconscious jealousy of black women's curves? She could have written a whole piece on that, and maybe it would have prompted a more honest discussion of why, even in this day and age, women's sense of identity is still so wrapped up in our body image.

If anything, yoga should be about learning to love and respect your body, to work with all your strengths and weaknesses. But the author didn't write about that.

4. Some other reason you can't see. Maybe the new student was ill or hadn't slept well. Maybe she was struggling for reasons that had nothing to do with her size, or being a beginner.

I have been that person who, for whatever reason, cannot keep up with the class. In my case, I was injured, and consequently frustrated at the pain and my body's limitations, but I'm sure the look on my face would be taken as hostile to anyone who saw me and didn't know what was going on.

As one of my friends used to say, "Maybe she's not mad at you. Maybe that's just her face."

Yoga is a journey, not a destination. Perhaps most upsetting to me as a yoga practitioner is that any halfway decent teacher should have gone over to speak to the new student and asked if she was ok. If she needed help. And suggested modified poses to help a beginner get started. But not all yoga styles are the same, and a lot of yoga teachers are clueless, if not downright dangerous. The fact that the author apparently didn't know that just makes me sad.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard given to beginning yogis is this: eyes on your own mat.

In other words, don't worry about what anyone else is doing. This author clearly failed to focus on her own yoga practice. If she was so worried about it, I can't help wondering, why didn't she ask the teacher to intervene?

The other piece of advice I give everyone as they advance in yoga: stop competing with everyone, including yourself. For a lot of people, the combination of meditative and physically challenging aspects of yoga bring up a lot of questions. I applaud people who want to write about their internal debates, but that doesn't mean that every thought piece should be published.

In this case, I think the blame rests with the editor who didn't vet the piece with more sensitivity, and maybe was deliberately trying to be controversial.

I was recently reading about a similar case where the editor ended up apologizing at length for the outing of Dr.V.

As independent bloggers, we have to take all the responsibility. I would hope that Jane Pratt would know better, but the tagline for the site is this: is where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded."

In that regard, the author definitely succeeded. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

On publishing

A comment on the previous post asked how much I published.

Let me start by saying, a lot more people have read this blog than ever read the scientific papers I published, if that tells you anything…

I can't give you exact numbers, but I did publish well enough to get fellowships. (for all the good it did me, since I never had sufficient financial support from my PIs...)

"How well" is kind of subjective and depends on how you look at it. When I went to grad school, I had no idea how hard publishing would be. I had no idea how hard it would be to learn how to write scientific papers. I had never done any kind of collaborative writing projects before. I had no idea how much I would detest having my boss "edit" my work (read: re-write = put words in my mouth).

I could have, should have, would have published more if it had been entirely up to me.

My thesis advisor was an obsessive perfectionist who hated my writing and was always loathe to publish. It felt like dragging a kicking, screaming, clawing, biting, rabid horse to water and forcing it to drink.

My postdoc advisors were a mix. One did not want to publish at all; one was consistently hypocritical about impact factors; one completely screwed me over… Those are great stories, but you'll have to wait for the book, since they're each at least a chapter long…

Let's say it was a bit like the movie Gravity, which I finally saw this weekend, except without the triumphant ending. Like Goldilocks who gets eaten at the end. This space station is too smashed. This space station is too on fire. This space station is falling out of the sky...

As I've mentioned repeatedly on this blog, none of my papers are Cell/Science/Nature. I have heard that factor alone is one of the major factors that kept me from getting interviews for faculty positions or at places like Genentech. Of course we know it is inextricably linked with my not having worked for sufficiently famous/well-liked PIs.

In spite of that, some of my papers are cited enough to be considered "high impact". Interestingly, unlike some trendy research that gets cited a lot and then never again, for all of my work there was a lag time where nobody noticed it came out or believed it at all, and then citations have steadily accumulated as years go by.

Which does not help me get a job now, but is somewhat heartening when I feel like nothing I have done (besides this blog) has mattered at all.

On the other hand, I have met some people who said they thought I had a great track record and a lot of publications. Which I always find amusing, because it really is relative.

Did I have a good experience publishing? Not really. I've written about that (see past posts re: rebuttal letters). I got enough of a taste of the worst that publishing has to offer - unreliable, possibly corrupt editors and reviewers, etc. I witnessed the rich and famous PIs who wined and dined the editors and hand-picked their reviewers, and bullied their grad students & postdocs into ghostwriting reviews…

Back at my desk, I was infuriated by the enormous waste of time and effort it takes to reformat references and figure labels to suit each different journal. All the inefficiency of waiting to get reviews back, especially when the editor "forgot" to send the paper out, and my PI refused to inquire…  or the editor left the journal and left my paper sitting in a pile somewhere… And those months of my life when I could not move forward, trying to guess what the reviewers would ask for and do those experiments "just in case".

It's important to note that I had a miserable time addressing reviews, because almost every time I was finally able to submit a paper it occurred at the tail end of my funding/temporary appointment, so I couldn't afford to do the laborious and/or expensive (and often ridiculous) experiments the reviewers (probably my competitors) were requesting. So in some cases where if I had $$$$$$ and a team of lab mates to help me, things would have gone differently. Instead I had to go to a different journal (read: down a tier or two) and start over, the goal being to find a journal and reviewers who would not ask for me to do those things I could not afford to do.

I've also been a reviewer, although not recently, and found it to be a very educational experience. I wrote a post or two about that, too. It was very different to be on the other side of the table.

At this point, I am glad to see that open publishing is gathering momentum. More people are seriously proposing ways to do things we discussed back when I first started blogging, when these ideas were really "out there" and controversial. A lot can change in 5+ years. Who knows where we'll be in 5 more.

I'm of the opinion that a lot needs to change in order for science to be a worthwhile pursuit for anyone with the ability to choose among other, more profitable careers. I think changing the way publishing works is fundamental to fixing a lot of the problems, since so much of hiring and funding feeds on assumptions made about how publishing reflects quality.

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.