Sunday, May 08, 2011

Cooking in other people's kitchens.

I've used the kitchen to talk about lab, and I still think it's the best analogy.

Since it's an issue now with some of the consulting I'm doing, I'm going to elaborate a little more.

When I was a grad student, I really liked my lab in a lot of ways. The people who set up our workspace did a great job of arranging the equipment and we had plenty of room to do what we needed to do.

Having said that, my labmates were not always the best roommates. Not everyone was equally conscientious about replacing shared consumables . Also, some of our equipment was old and unreliable, and there were things we needed that we couldn't afford.

So naturally, by the time I graduated, I had a wish list of what I wanted in my postdoc lab. Some people think it's stupid to worry about this kind of thing, but my feeling is that if you're going to be running around in there 60+ hours a week working with your hands, the day-to-day stuff really does make a huge difference in how productive you're going to be. Not to mention how quickly you're going to get tired and frustrated and want to go home. And some projects will be virtually impossible without the right tools.

Looking back on my postdoc interviews, I asked the right questions. But my PIs lied. They all overstated their resources. For example, if I asked about a specific piece of expensive equipment, they said "yes we have one of those" but the truth turned out to be something more like "there is one in the next building over" or "there used to be one on campus."

Worse than that, after I joined their labs, they regularly dismissed my requests. They implied that I was being "high maintenance" and told me that I needed to be more patient or learn how to make do with less. Which was especially insulting considering that I knew quite well how to make do with whatever was around, but my point was that it was a giant waste of my time and expertise to make me do it that way.

I particularly resented the PIs who didn't understand the distinctions between doing things the cheap way vs. the right way. I tried to explain that the cheap way works sometimes, but the right way works EVERY TIME. Do you want it to be reproducible? Do you want all the iterations to be done quickly? Doesn't it actually end up costing you more money in the long run when it doesn't work and ends up taking longer/more iterations?

I think a lot of my career frustration has come from this lack of control. You know, like when you take those surveys for biotech companies, and they ask you whether you

a) evaluate equipment and approve purchases
b) make recommendations for equipment
c) have no input

The hierarchy in most labs is that the PI does (a), postdocs do (b), undergrads do (c), and grad students/technicians usually fall somewhere in the b-c range depending on seniority and the size of the lab.

I got really tired of playing the b string, especially when my recommendations were always ignored. I had to watch helplessly when Blond Guy wanted to buy something that I knew was worse. But nobody else knew that, nobody would listen to me even though I had more expertise, and the boss liked him better than me. So we always got what Blond Guy wanted, and I got screwed.

This really wore me down. I spent basically my entire career working with:

a) not enough equipment
b) old/broken equipment
c) the wrong equipment

One of the things that really made me want a faculty position was this carrot: that I would someday be able to set up my own lab the way I wanted it.

Like my kitchen. Sure, I might not have everything right away, but I could make the decisions about what to get and where to put it, and gradually make improvements.

I wouldn't have to make do with whatever cheap knockoff junk they bought at a flea market because they didn't know any better.

I think the kitchen analogy helps explain what I mean. It's one thing to visit someone's house and make do when they don't have what you need. Say you visit for a holiday. No big deal. It's just one day.

Now imagine that you have an ailing relative and you have to stay in their house and cook for them every day for a year. And this relative is sickly but prone to tantrums so you can't make any big changes without risking their wrath (or maybe you're afraid of losing your inheritance, ha ha).

Let's say they only like bland food, and you have to cook for them, but they won't let you make something different to eat yourself. So now you're stuck not only cooking bland food in a crappy kitchen, but you have to eat the bland food, too.

Does that sound like fun?

Sure, you can sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night and make yourself something spicy without anyone finding out, but you still have to put the kitchen back the way it was when you're done. Or you have to go over to someone else's house and beg to use their KitchenAid mixer every time you want to bake.

I guess my point is, it's all well and good to talk about being a "team player", and I can enjoy that if I am treated as a team member. What I don't like is being told to put up or shut up. I didn't sign up to do science so I could follow blindly along behind my fearless leader. I signed up so I could get in the kitchen and cook up something new and different.

Anyway, I'm writing about this now because I still have some residual anxiety about making suggestions and asking for things. I always ask, it just stresses me out. I was told NO too many times. NO was often accompanied by personal and professional insults about how demanding and unreasonable I was being just because I had asked for something.

Just being told NO is ok. Just being insulted can be ok if you still get what you asked for. But the repetitious combination was really degrading.

One of the weird things about consulting is that you're essentially telling somebody you barely know what they should cook and how to run their kitchen. Even when they are receptive, sometimes it's hard to get over that initial fear of having to break the bad news that no, you can't make creme brulee with a cigarette lighter.

Especially when you know the subtext of the contract is whether you'd consider working on this project long-term, and the only honest answer is, "Not unless you'll let me remodel your kitchen."

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At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, I've had the same exact problems. For each awful PI, it was a total delusion on their parts about the state of affairs in the labs. I also asked all the right questions. I was also lied to. I made suggestions when I got there. FavoriteDouche or WhineyDouche got his way, not me. My idea of teamwork isn't me doing the asswiping.

When I was in a fantastic situation, I did everything I set out to do, and then some. I was set up to succeed. When I was in a hellhole, there's no way I could have succeeded. And part of me didn't want to succeed. Why should the douches benefit from me getting shit done and having their names on it!? If I'm being treated like crap, why should they get papers? They didn't. I also didn't. When I lose, they lose too. It amazes me that it's difficult for them to understand.

There's a zillion dollar piece of equipment that I need for my data, and there's no one who knows how to use it. But they have shiny big machine! I've had to outsource my projects multiple times now because the delusional crackpot PIs got funded for projects they have no local collaborators for and no resources to get shit done with. Each time, I had to go back to my home base and get shit done that way. I stopped doing that. It's the PIs problem, not mine anymore.

A former great PI recently said "I can do this for you, no strings attached" and I told him it was because there were never any strings that I want to always work with him. I'm not a fucking kite. I'm not going to soar on a short ratty string. I cut those fuckers so fast they don't know what hits them. I learned I'm not responsible for their success when they do nothing for my success.

Creme brulee!!!

At 1:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPhD - you've suffered verbal and emotional abuse, and being exposed to that every day for years on end, takes its toll in the form of lowering your self esteem. it's a fact (this is why many people stay in abusive relationships when everyone on the outside thinks they are crazy not to leave). I'm very glad you're out of that environment. Recalibrating to the real world after having spent years in a distorted world will take time, but you'll get there.

as for the contracts.... it's not your responsibility as the consultant to make the project succeed if your client does not take your recommendations. that is, if your role is as a 'real' consultant i.e. as an authoritative expert. I've seen some dubious situations where researchers were hired by companies as 'consultants' just as a legality when actually they were temp employees (to save on overhead, not having to pay benefits, costs or other legal loopholes). In those cases, the consultant really wasnt' actually functioning as a true consultant but as a temp employee and thus had no real decision making authority.

At 2:39 AM, Blogger DGeekChic said...

I'm a new reader of your blog and find it really informative. I'll be rounding up with my PhD soon and looking for that first postdoc. I now have some pointers as to what to look out for when I attend interviews. Thanks

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous RespiSci said...

To DGeekChic, when going for interviews be sure to not only ask the questions from the PI, but try to get the low down from the other lab members--technicians, post-docs, students. In some interviews you will even have the opportunity talk to other PIs in the department so be sure to ask the same questions of them. Now with human nature being what it is, not everyone will tell you the same story, but if you start to notice gross inconsistencies, then return to the PI and ask for clarification. If someone is lying to you about such concrete matters (ie does this equipment exist in your lab-yes or no?), how are you going to trust them other issues?

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a new reader to your blog liked it a lot. I am a PhD in polymer science with 3 yrs postdoc experience but currently unemployed. I got married 7 yrs back but starting real married life only now as we were working in different countries. So finally I got frustrated of everything quit my last postdoc and moved to live with my husband. After reading your blog I got the feeling I am not alone in feeling the way i do about postdocs.

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous David - MA Security said...

Educational institutions often think for the short run instead of the long run. It's a major problem in the academic system, but nothing we can do about it, but try to convince our deans we need more money for our projects.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

RespiSci - Great advice re: asking other lab members. They might know if there are service contracts on all the important equipment, or who else has the stuff you need. Or they might not. They might work on totally separate projects from what you'd be doing.

Keep in mind, they can also lie to you. I've heard postdocs say they always try to help recruit good people because they want smart labmates, even though they know the lab is a miserable place. And they will lie to you to get you to come, even if it's just lies of omission or sounding positive even when it's regarding things that they know are unlikely. They're just being selfish because they think you'll be fun to have around. They are not thinking about your well-being or your career.

This is why I always tell people to try to contact former lab members, but even there it's dicey because if they're still in academia, they also have pressure to sound positive about their former PI, e.g. if they still need tenure letters from the PI, or help getting grants approved by study sections the PI sits on.

The most honest answers will probably come from people who quit the lab and quit academia to go to industry or maybe quit science altogether.

But there you have the opposite problem - they may be negative because they just didn't like science that much, so you have to take whatever they say with that in mind. If they say the lab sucked, you have to find out why. Sometimes it turns out they just hated the lab because the PI let someone else have the radio on during the day. Some people leave for the strangest reasons.

Still, former lab members probably have the least conflict of interest re: telling you what kind of crazy shit actually went down in the past, which may or may not help predict what it would be like for you if you joined the lab.

Did your potential PI knowingly publish data that couldn't be verified? Has he been investigated for sexual harassment? Etc.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a postdoc I and other fellow postdocs actively discouraged new prospective postdocs from joining our lab because truth is, our advisor was very bad (and yes he had a reputation for being very bad as well.) just that he had access to a lot of fancy expensive equipment, his lab was the only kind in my specialty which was also in a geographical region which was a desirable place to live, which is why we came to his lab. But as an advisor, he was pretty bad and all his postdocs left bitterly to "make up for lost time" in other postdoc stints, including me. The only postdocs who left in a non-bitter state were those who were planning to leave academic research anyway (planning to have babies and become stay at home moms, or decided they hate science and want to go to law school instead, or something like that)...I'm glad to report that all the prospective postdocs we warned away took our advice and didnt' join us. I'd like to think I saved several people from the misery and career derailment I had to go through.

However I can understand how people might do the opposite and LIE to prospective postdocs about how bad the lab/advisor is even if they're really unhappy. Part of being professional - we're conditioned to believe - is to not say bad things about people behind their backs. It doesn't make you look good when you're badmouthing someone behind their back and I always had this in mind as an uneasy feeling - tell the truth, or refrain from badmouthing my advisor behind his back? . But I overrode that guilty feeling because (a) the advisor really was very very bad (I'm talking unethical behavior type of bad, here)...(b) the advisor was tenured and in a very late stage of his career and seemed happy to not have a lot of output publications but be more of a department administrator so I dont' think it hurt him to not have more postdocs. I reasoned that my advisor would suffer much less from me telling the truth and not having those new postdocs join his lab, than the new postdocs would if I kept quiet or lied and they came and spent several of their early-career years in wasted futility with him.

I wish someone had warned me away from him when I was a prospective postdoc. But at that time he was "in between postdocs" so there was no one to warn me.

At 10:22 AM, Anonymous MRI Postdoc said...

When I interviewed for my postdoc, I asked my soon-to-be PI if everything was okay in the lab. He said yes, and the lab equipment I saw looked okay. What I did not know was that he had several active lawsuits against the university, which caused a civil war in his department - half of the profs are with him; the other half refuse to talk with him or anyone associated with him.

So he truthfully described lab equipment in the building I work in. What I didn't know was I'd never be able to use most of it.

At 5:04 AM, Anonymous Lemmy said...

MsPhD - I'm about to finish my PhD (god knows how many months I've been saying that) but I can relate to even the smallest details in this particular entry even though my situation is slightly different.

I'm actually one of the first grad students in our now somewhat developed research group and established many things, from inter-group dynamics to equipments, both within and without the laboratory - or at least that's what I still believe after four years.

Although I'm sure it was unnecessary (as there was no doubt that I was to join the research group), I was reassured that I were to become "the most senior person" in the group (unless we get a postdoc at any stage) and would have a say" in new members joining our group and other important matters.

I did not care much at the time; in fact, after four years of a rather active academic life, that promise is such a silly thing for any supervisor to say in the first place.

You probably have already guessed from the anecdote that none of those promises were kept. What made things worse, however, was that many things that I suggest now go dismissed or unheard; or worst, my supervisor simply entertains me (or at least that appears to be the case in my perspective) by either sending out a group e-mail with "dire consequences" should things are not achieved or make one of those appearance in the lab as a "threat".

I am not one to become apathetic at correcting ongoing problems but I seem to be living in a culture where inconsiderate, unprofessional, or even unethical, conducts are condoned. I cannot find a way out as I feel that as an educator it is part of my responsibilities to rectify such problems and I'm losing self esteem rapidly in this environment (not to mentioned the countless hours that other people's leftovers has cost me).

Anyhow, that's my story of empty promises and inconsiderate labmates; the story can clearly go on forever but it's lovely to know that at least there are people out there who have been involved in similar situations before and have dealt with. Thank you very much for the useful opinions!

At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lemmy - I understand your situation and how you feel. I got my degree over a decade ago, spent over half a decade in various postdoc labs, now am a staff scientist in a research institute and a research faculty (non TT, for I can't stomach the TT track). In the many labs I've been a member of, at various levels (from a "trail blazer" in my PhD lab because I was the first student to do research in the new direction that the advisor wanted to change to and was his first student when he switched instiutions and thus did a lot of lab building like you did), to being the most junior and invisible lab member as a postdoc in that lab which was well-established, to being a senior postdoc in another lab, and so on.... I've been in my share of demoralizing situations, and in thankfully better ones.

I'd like to think that when I was in a better place it's because of my perserverance in fighting for what's right and modeling good behavior for my coworkers to follow and they did, and...all that is crap.

I spent way too long trying to change negative situations on my own, while people around me were set in stone as far as their negative attitudes and behaviors. People dont' change, but the environment can change if those problemmatic people leave and are replaced by better people, or if you leave and go to where there's better people.

But, don't think you can change other people or that you can change a negative environment on your own (unless you have the power to fire people and choose who to replace them with). If you don't have authority to choose who you work with or to create consequences for bad behavior or create rewards for good behavior(and as a student and postdoc you wont' have the authority to do these), then the most proactive thing you can do is to get yourself away from a bad situation and go into a better one.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Noticed you have been silent for along time. Hope this is not the end and that all is well.

At 12:47 PM, Anonymous ~BioGirl~ said...

As someone who actually cooks in other people's kitchen, I am glad I don't have to do any of it in the lab. These days, all my academic endeavors take place on the computer and I am thankful for it. Well, the issues are gonna come up when I want to have my own lab space I suppose.


At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I postdocd with someone very senior, and who had nothing but senior equipment. We were always short of funds... I remember doing a sequencing project with enzyme "borrowed" from another lab, until we got our money.

When i look back on it I see the money and gadgets hardly mattered. What mattered is that my advisor took the time to help me think critically, write, etc.

A couple of years ago I made the transition from postdoc to my own lab.I now have a brand new, lab fully equipped, with a million times more equipment and supplies. Somehow even in this environment, there is much bitching about whatever we don't have and little appreciation for what we do have.

And reality is that even though I try to be fair I am definitely more sympathetic to certain people's needs because I perceive they are working harder, or have already been trying to make the best of what we have or are just plain easier and nicer to work with on a purchasing decision. The latter issue being troubling because some very smart people just don't seem to get that. And sometimes I am just worried about keeping people funded until they can be independent.... To be clear, I'm not implying this is your situation - just giving another perspective.

So I think, success still largely comes down to how well people think and read and write and also how well we deal with the people around us. And then a little luck.

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 3:59 wrote:

When i look back on it I see the money and gadgets hardly mattered. What mattered is that my advisor took the time to help me think critically, write, etc.

I can kind of agree with you on this point. My thesis advisor was a really good thinker and in many regards, I think I got some great training in that lab, regardless of how poor we were (and all the other problems we had).

However, I think I spent a lot of energy and time doing things the very hardest way possible because we couldn't afford to do it more easily or quickly, and that put my publications in lower-tier journals than they could have been in otherwise. Also, my advisor had a serious insecurity complex about not having more money. That also translated to insecurity about trying to publish in top-tier journals. Ultimately all of that led to me looking a lot less competitive on paper than I should have. And nobody cares that I know how to MacGyver gel rigs if I need to. Those skills go to waste if you never get to have your own lab.

lab fully equipped, with a million times more equipment and supplies. Somehow even in this environment, there is much bitching about whatever we don't have and little appreciation for what we do have.

I would resent that if I were you and had ungrateful students and postdocs. But I would also like to think that if I were the PI, I would do my utmost to make the day-to-day for my trainees as easy as possible. Science is hard enough, whatever tools and toys you can supply, I say go for it.

Another perspective, maybe this means you're hiring the wrong people? I've noticed that of my friends who have gotten faculty positions, many did both PhD and postdoc in very rich labs who had no experience with having to make do using older equipment or fewer disposables. Seems to me this is the general trend because those people come out looking more competitive on paper, even though their actual life skills didn't prepare them for running their own labs on a reduced budget.

A lot of times I think the worst postdocs are the ones who did their PhDs in rich labs. They don't even know how to pour agarose plates or protein gels, make their own competent cells because they always bought them. I'm just saying.

At 1:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent a great deal of my time as a grad school building and constructing equipment for my thesis research. Not new kinds of equipment customized for my unique experiments, mind you. I had to build my own version of commercially available equipment that was standard in richer labs because our lab was too poor to buy such basic equipment. As such, much of my time was spent doing work that was not publishable and which a student in a richer lab could bypass completely by a click of the mouse (i.e. making a purchase). It's like having to build your own computer from scrap parts not because your research requires some unique capability that normal computers don't have, but simply because you don't have money to buy a regular computer like everyone else.

Since I enjoy designing and building things, I did find a lot of satisfaction in that in the end, and it has made me a better more self sufficient researcher. When I became a postdoc I was shocked at how many of my colleagues (postdocs) seemed out of touch with their research because they just saw their instruments as a black box and thus were not as able to troubleshoot or interpret anomalous data or design new experiments easily. But by the time I (and they) became staff scientists I saw it didn't matter anymore, they were by now pigenholed in their small niche that what they knew was sufficient for them, or by now they had postdocs and technicians working under them to do that kind of stuff for them.

But to this day I still wonder how my thesis advisor managed to get funding for a project for which he had no basic facilities. Did he lie on his grant proposal about what resources he had or didin't have??

At 2:28 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Ms.PhD,
I loved reading this piece! about cooking. Well written! :)

Herlen Hogg


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