Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Brainwashing of American Postdocs

Lately I am reading (in avoidance of all those papers my peers are publishing all around me): psychology books.

I never took psychology in college, so I'm a little late to the party. I did read one book about brainwashing during the cultural revolution in China.

The main thing I remember about that book were the torture techniques they used to break down prisoners' sense of self, including starvation, the water-drop technique, and making them write out pledges that said things like 2+2=5.

The idea being that if you can make them feel lost and helpless, when you throw them a rope, no matter how illogical, they will grab on.

These days I've been reading a lot of books about sales and advertising, for some reason it always amused me to watch people figuring out how to make a pitch (watched too much thirtysomething as a kid?).

It's really interesting, all the little techniques you can use to get people to comply with your requests.

I'm particularly interested because I see PIs doing these things all the time.

Some of them go like this:

The foot-in-the-door technique: You agree to something small that you don't want to do, and psychologically this makes you more likely to agree to do larger things you want even less. For a postdoc, a good example would be taking a rotation student you don't want, and then having it work out a little better than you expected.... even though it still sucks. But regardless of how it works out, this kind of give-an-inch makes you much more likely to agree to give a mile, like when you then agree to ghostwrite part of your advisor's grant.

The consistency principle : You agree to do certain things because they've become part of your persona, not because it's what you really want. For a postdoc, this is akin to keeping up appearances by being in lab all the time even when you don't want to be or have nothing to do, because you've become accustomed to everyone viewing you as The One Who Works Hard.

Reciprocation : Also known as Guilt. This is when someone you don't like or trust does you a favor without your asking, and then you feel obligated to do some irritating lab maintenance thing for them while they're on vacation.

Contrast and compare : Your advisor asks you to do something completely ridiculous, like an experiment that will take 4 years and will never work, so you say no. Then your advisor asks you to do something less onerous- say, an experiment that will take 1 year and has a slim chance of working- so you say yes. Under normal circumstances, you would never have agreed to do the 2nd ridiculous thing, but it seems less ridiculous than the first, plus you feel bad about saying no to the first thing.

So you see where I'm going with this.

Among other things, I'm interested in why, when postdocs become PIs, they suddenly switch from "The system is flawed" to "The system is fine."

I think we're losing a lot of gusto at that stage.

We're also losing a lot of women.

I had to laugh because NSF just released a bunch of new data on women postdocs, not unlike some that NIH quietly posted on their websites a while back (see for instance this link).

But talk about How to Lie with Statistics!

The NSF graphs clearly show ~5% increase in women over the last 10 years in most fields, and yet the text says, and I quote:

Women accounted for a rising share of postdocs in all fields except computer sciences and in 2006 represented one-third of all S&E postdocs, up from 29% in 1996.

Uh, yeah. You're telling me "a rising share" is a fair and balanced way to express the reality of "up from 29% to one-third"????!!!!

Just how stupid do they think we are???

Doesn't NSF have some obligation to present the data, you know, accurately and objectively?

Clearly, with language like that, they have an agenda. I don't think I have to tell you what it is.

In fact, the data clearly show we're gaining very little ground if any, especially when you compare it with the numbers of women in the same fields in graduate school (for which I am too lazy to dig up the link, but you're smart, you can find it).

So far as I can tell, it's just a really steep dropoff when you hit the end of the postdoc road.

Much of this is, I think, because of the Consistency principle. We might have some women faculty and even some sympathetic male faculty, but they are often unwilling to help us at all because of the brainwashing event that apparently takes place when you sign onto your startup.

The logic goes:

The system is broken --> but the system likes me --> therefore, the system is not broken, because I refuse to admit I got my job based on knowing people and not on my scientific qualifications alone.

In fact, I originally thought maybe I'd write this from the point of view of graduate students, who often go through the cycle like this:

grad school will be easy ---> grad school sucks and I'm miserable --> grad school was not that bad, I was never miserable at all

Not entirely unlike a prisoner in a brainwashing camp.

What do you think? What techniques has your PI used on you? And would you say they were successful in getting you to comply?

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At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so miserable as a postdoc that I look back on my perhaps equally miserable time as a grad student as one of the best times of my life. And I yearn for those years when I was a naive, fresh-faced, eagerly working student.

Clearly, I'm a prisoner in a brainwashing camp you described.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel like I'm being "brainwashed" by my PI into thinking that I play a certain role in the lab. This role is that of the overly agressive female (aka the b*tch).

My PI thinks that I am always aggressive. In truth, most of the time I feel happy, excited about research, balanced in life, and understanding of situations. When I asked some of my (very) honest fellow grad students if they perceive this aggressiveness in me, they laughed because they felt it was out of line with my personality.

But I get this response from my PI so often that sometimes I start to believe that there must be some truth in it.

I notice that when my PI interacts with my male colleagues, their assertiveness is expected, tolerated, and even encouraged in some situations.

But I don't think this "brainwashing" is malicious. It may be some subconscious difference in standards for assertiveness in male versus female students?

The worst part is that I've not assertive by nature, and I've had to work very hard (attending communication workshops and prof. development seminars, etc) to become more assertive, which I thought would be positive for my career!

I hear this is a common experience for assertive women in science.

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, those damn charts are depressing. Here's my data point. I was one of 30 female postdocs in my field for my grad year. There were 60 male postdocs total.
My graduating class was 4 women, 1 man. All hoped for R1 jobs. Man has R1 job at crappy state school. 2 women in industry/govt after spinning wheels with academic jobs. 2 women escaped (and don't miss the bullshit at all). Of the 5, man had no authored high impact papers - he rode on dept OldCheese's collaboration coattails. Women all have several decent papers and at least one high impact authored paper with advisor. Doing the 'remove the names from the CV' test would rank him last. It's not what you know, it's who you know. And having male parts helps with the pissing matches. I just wish the pissing matches measured amount of piss rather than distance of piss - I can sure let out a load. And there's plenty of people to piss on.

I agree that once sheeple get in the system, they fail to see the brokenness. At that point, they become part of the problem if they don't start working toward solutions. what problem?

I'm reading books on negotiating (read: how to deal with assholes). It's not about the science.

At 8:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey at least at this rate by 2038, 50% of postdocs will be female.

At 8:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm particularly interested because I see PIs doing these things all the time."

Selection effect: If you don't do them, you don't become a PI.

A PI to science is not what an engineer is to business. A PI is someone who excels (at least above the rest of the crowd) in sales and management.

For science this means that the recruitment chain is inefficient. In grad school, you select for intelligence, frustration tolerance, and research ability. As a postdoc you select for presentation and salesmanship. And as a PI you select for grant writing and management. The inefficiency is due to changing the objective every few years. As each PI spouts about 10 PhDs during a career and only one of them is going to be a PI, the efficiency/duty cycle is about 10%.

That is presuming that all 10 PhDs wants to become PIs. Unfortunately, in the beginning, most of them do, because they don't see/have not been told, that life could be so much better outside of academia.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Dear YoungFemaleScientist (if that is your real name!) ,


This Blog as a whole is brilliant, and it is completely UNAPPRECIATED! I'm sorry, I recently stumbled upon this whilst googling (Is that how you verb it? -_-) the inter-tubes for information about the science of depression, and this came up.

As a male (please don't throw things at me...) I must protest with great intensity against science for essentially turning its laboratory coat to women like you!!!

As you mention, I suppose I would fit into the category of 'woman sympathiser', but I find this not entirely accurate, because I hardly get on with other blokes any way.

My path to science (theoretical physics with emphasis upon the quantum and particle interactions with a gleeful optimism about astrophysics & cosmology) is a rather strange one, with lots of obstacles and untimely circumstances making it more difficult for me.

Based merely upon convention, I rarely find myself in much agreement with many males in ordinary social situations due to their natural abrasiveness, as I am not truly disposed to hyper-masculinity (although heterosexual, to my oh-so-sensitive and caring parents surprise;bloody wankers) due to a disinterest in activities(sporting events, car races, life consuming video gaming, eating about 8 animals a day[not vegetarian, just a modest meat eater], watching explosive cinema films, loving competition in everything and other such qualities naturally isolates myself from several men that feel the need to show off their alpha male status in some way or another.

Personally, I get sick of that rubbish as well. It's childishness that I never really relate to very much.

ONE MAIN POINT IN ALL THIS : unlike many other male scientists that science seems to have a crush on so much (Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, James Watson etcetera) I was NOT inspired by a male (father figure was never around enough to talk to me at all,let alone make me 'like him') but RATHER a woman, my mum.

The reason this is due to her sensitivity and attention to detail that made me appreciate not just the prettiness of the stars as I looked past the open window sill at night, but what they are, where they are and what they are like up close.

Through her propensity of emphasising creative thinking and lots of reading, I naturally found my way to science and a love for what's really going on, albeit occasional deviations into fantasy.(don't we all dream?)

In physics particularly, I find it that there are not enough women wanting to be a part of such a wondrous journey of understanding, and I find this deeply saddening because my mum always was a curious person, which I always admired, and I just took that and ran with it to a mental area where others too are fascinated by the same mysteries of the universe.

I have several creative passion as well that make me a 'strange' male for appreciating the violin and piano's dexterity as a musical instrument, the type of peaceful feeling I get from drawing strange things with pencil or paint that help me understand the physics I read or the ideas I dream.

I find it that singing too, is very good for my psychological stability, making me sort of 'melt' into a song.

And writing! Oh, just typing this makes me happy because I am, in a sense, sharing my mind with YOU, the reader. No matter when you pick up these words in your head, you are hearing the ones I utter clearly (although not with my silly voice and accent) in your mind, manifesting images and sounds simply from the strange characters adopted from Roman characters.

So, writing is something I want to share with the world, but I want to share my passion of science with others, because I find it sickening that so many people allow themselves to be slaves to the telly, always going back to it.
[I haven't actually watched a full program on a television for over two years. I watch documentaries, YouTube and some films, but I just can't stand money-hustling television shows that are so vapid and dull!]

I'm digressing a LOT!

I just want to say that I truly think this site is brilliant and that it should be given more recognition for its clever writing and very much under-emphasised agenda of getting women into the work that is most beneficial to humanity!

Is a "woman's touch" a sexist statement? I personally think that women shape my personality more than men, because men I understand by being simple minded apes (me Tarzan, want to bring Jane to tree house!) and I admit to being a sexual creature too, because as much as I can see the silliness of courting rituals and how each gender takes advantage of each other, I'm still a part of the cyclical state that exists.

The reason women are so important, to me, is that all the ladies of the world see things differently, with more flair and exuberance than a lot of men do, and I find it that it's a disservice to progress to not let women do as much as men are doing, because I'm as biased as ever being a bi-product of a woman that wanting a little girl. (Does that sound creepy? Ugh. She made me become reverent and respectful to all people, especially girls, and now I am the tall, nerdy, shy archetype that women use for his looks until they realise I'm a book worm that isn't the tough jerk that women seem so enamoured with)

I don't know if you'll actually read this comment, but please get back to me at FallingStarBlues@gmail.com .

I'll keep checking back on this site because I really think it's on a similar wavelength to what I generally appreciate, so thank you for what you're doing! ^_^


At 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a funny experience about advisor's 'psychological tricks': First, my advisor is that kind who wants to show confidence (I mean, bravery and leadership) at field. Someday we were working at field in Amazonia and she noticed that her rubber boots were really damaged and she couldn't walk comfortably (we were far away of research station!). So the 'brave advisor' was dragging slowly her feet near of me inside the forest! So, I took the leadership of expedition. I think she never would expect that tragedy (nor me!)! After she had asked my boots size (that were very different of hers) she said to me: Your boots aren't that safe either because something (snakes, mosquitoes) could drop into it!
(Just because my boots have a small hole!). I was scared not because of her 'advice', but how 'bold' she really is!
As you can imagine, MsPhD, I didn't comply it and I have finished this field work as a 'leader' !!

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there data on what are happening to the postdocs?

I saw the chart on definite employment after PhD (~72% biological science end up in a postdoc). But then what happens after the first post-doc? There certainly aren't enough academic jobs for everyone.

Does anyone know if/where there are data on what postdocs end up doing after?

I'd also like to see data on how age at hire, and age at tenure (and maybe number or children or having an academic spouse) has changed in the last 30 years.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger scicurious said...

"grad school will be easy ---> grad school sucks and I'm miserable --> grad school was not that bad, I was never miserable at all"

That is TOTALLY ME. I think over the years I've just gotten used to the suckage, and I'm not even out yet.

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to Anon 8:02 pm: What's the book name? I'm surrounded by male ah's

At 6:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm one of those successful women postdocs who sees the flaws, desperately trying to avoid being a turncoat PI who thinks the system is fine. But what are the alternatives? Despite publishing a good paper this year, I decided not to apply for a PI position, because I cannot in good conscience recruit new young women into a system that will not reward them. But I can't get a job doing anything else (such as teaching at a small state university, working at my local public library as a reference librarian, or other medical related administrative jobs) because I am "overqualified." One has to eat.

At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But I can't get a job doing anything else (such as teaching at a small state university...) because I am "overqualified."

I very much doubt that you would be considered "overqualified" for a small state university. I teach at such a place, and I did a postdoc at a big place and published in a good journal. A lot of my colleagues come from similar backgrounds.

The biggest obstacle a postdoc may face in applying to an undergraduate institution is a lack of teaching experience (and TA doesn't really count, because actually running your own class is a totally different game). But if you can line up some sort of adjunct teaching gig for a quarter or a semester, then you would probably be a competitive candidate at many teaching-oriented schools.

It is good that you view a teaching-oriented school as a sane alternative rather than a sign of failure. To too many people, those who go to undergraduate institutions are failures because we aren't going to be producing Ph.D. students and postdocs. To me, going to an undergraduate institution meant that I wouldn't be participating in the unsustainable practice of professors training students who become professors who train students who.... It's a system that cannot sustain itself, and there are plenty of worthwhile pursuits outside that system. Undergraduate institutions are places where one can remain active in science by teaching and even doing some research but not participate in the insanity of the system.

BTW, many primarily-undergraduate institutions have M.S. programs. That's an additional factor to consider, if you want to work with more advanced students but not participate in the Ph.D.-> postdoc-> PI pyramid scheme.

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you arent happy and dont think you can recruit a woman when you're a PI,then you're not doing the system any good.If you want change, you have to start with yourself!

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to anon 107 from anon 802,

Books currently on my nightstand are:

"Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want"
Linda Babcock

"Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers"
Lois P. Frankel

"Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In"
Roger Fisher

"The Shadow Negotiation: How Women Can Master the Hidden Agendas That Determine Bargaining Success"
Deborah Kolb

I'm hoping to be a ninja negotiator by summer. Good luck to you.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Anonymous 7:08 - exactly. Women must be assertive, just not *too* assertive!

At 1:12 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Oh and - great post YFS! So recognised those techniques.

At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think my PI is actually insane. Makes for interesting times. He leaves me alone a lot, though, and I have things that I pursue on my own, so I'm actually quite happy most of the time if a little unnerved.


At 5:15 PM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I'm not sure I totally buy the second half of this post, but the first half was very funny and spot on.

The thing is, though--I don't think any of these techniques in getting trainees/employees to do things they're not fond of is in any way unique to the scientific profession. (I recognize you were saying this too, by drawing parallels w advertising...)

Really, all managers want to get the most out of their employees. Some are better at using tools like the ones you mention in subtle fashion, while others are more manipulative, and still others are downright abusive. The same is true of PIs/trainees. I think of it as being more about human nature than about a special flaw of science that we feast upon our young. The corporate world isn't exactly a pony ride either.

In any case, I love that you applied these advertising concepts to the scientific realm, because oh so true. I think I'm just less upset about it than you are--and now that you've pointed it out, I figure I'm more prepared to jujitsu the next time someone uses one of these tactics on me.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice Blog!,

Many PIs do these things, one even got me into a *totally* different PhD project than the one I applied and when I protested about it he made sure I am treated like an outcast. Ended up changing PhD advisor... after having wasted 2+ years of my life.

On the other hand having realized that this is all there is to being a PI (in most cases, I have seen a minority of intelligent & kind people) and there is not much brilliant science & brains involved, I decided to just get a normal job, get payed and not give an eck about it after 5:30 :). I will miss research as I, romantically, hoped it to be but NEVER as I actually experienced it.

Seeing people like my previous advisor being the norm made an impression and having a very kind & intelligent person as the new advisor was not enough to revert my decision or change my opinion about academia as a potential job market.

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