PIs are a buncha sell-outs, man!

In her inimitable style Ms.PhD of Young Female Scientist threw down some smack in a post entitled The Brainwashing of American Postdocs:

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."

and in case you didn't quite grasp the point:


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.

What a crock!


I'm willing to bet there are some new-ish and old-ish faculty in the biosciences who have always had rainbows and unicorns surrounding their scientific training and activities. I am also quite certain that most of these types think that the system is nearly perfect and that their relative success is a natural result of their inherent worth, talent and accomplishment. For them the system works and no doubt they are not shy about testifying to this. I doubt, however, that such people ever changed much throughout training and across the transition to independence.
Demotivators-defeat.jpg
That leaves the rest of us. Most of us, as MsPhD and other disgruntleblogger/commenters tend to forget, were disgruntled trainees. With many complaints and objections about our career system. Going by the evidence of my peers and the relative handful of PI bloggers about the net, MsPhD's contention that we somehow forget our roots is nonsense. Utter nonsense.
What happens, of course, is that as with most of life we gain perspective and information as we progress and mature. We can handle the apparently subtle distinction between prescriptive and descriptive analysis. We can manage the duality of simultaneously advising how to succeed within a system as it is found and advocating or working toward improving that system.
Nevertheless, MsPhD's point is well worth keeping in mind because it is entirely possible. Possible to sell-out and start endorsing and reinforcing exactly the same things to which one used to object merely because it is now convenient to do so. And by this I mean is personally advantageous at the expense of other people and/or the overall conduct of science.

14 responses so far

  • capitalist says:

    Or perhaps those that succeed really do have the intellect, preparation and talent that makes them different from the herd of disgruntled postdocs?

  • Nat says:

    Or perhaps those that succeed really do have the intellect, preparation and talent that makes them different from the herd of disgruntled postdocs?

    Yeah, just like everything you read in Cell, Nature and Science is correct, novel, and paradigm shifting.

  • cashmoney says:

    everything you read in Cell, Nature and Science is correct, novel, and paradigm shifting.
    It IS!!!!! totes!!!!

  • becca says:

    One of the useful career-advice things I ran across (before I started reading DM, if I recall correctly) was Ms. Mentor's guide to academia. It offered excellent 'how to work the system' type advice. That said, the emphasis was "GET TENURE and then you will be in a position to challenge existing sexism/racism/bias/scientific dishonesty/abusive faculty/evil". It was useful advice, but kind of soul-sucking to read all in concentrated form like that. I get a similar queasiness from CPP sometimes (and, albeit less often, you as well DM).
    Somebody (I wish I could find it- maybe DC Sessions?) commented a while back that "the goal of science is discovery"- and that this was the sole possible goal, inasmuch as creating a family friendly workplace was completely irrelevant. I needed to ponder that, but I'm gonna call bullshit on it. Process is important.
    Pure mathematics might be important solely for it's beauty, but science is important in part because of what it produces for society... and if it's damaging individual members of society to discover things, the things that it's discovering have to be pretty darn important to balance that out.

  • Sunny Egoan says:

    The assertion that "the goal of science is discovery" as if nothing else about it matters is exactly as morally and intellectually bankrupt as the assertion that unfettered robber baron / sweatshop style free market capitalism is the best economic plan.

  • Anonymous says:

    I've been reading DM and CPP for a few months now, but I'm now going to stop because I also find it soul-sucking.

  • Becca says:

    Anonymous- get out why you still can. Those addiction bloggers have wackaloon tricks up their sleeves, I tell you.

  • boyie says:

    I really dont understand how the whole: "It's not what you know, it's who you know" system is 'broken'.
    I have known some amazingly brilliant chemists, but 1) they were incredibly socially awkward, and/or 2) they'd alienate you somehow by being offensive in some manner. They can work hard and publish in Nature/science/Cell, but if I were on a hiring committee I wouldnt go for them. Why? They lack social skills.
    Who you know is also a reflection of your ability to socialize, something very important in academia. Making connections, being personable and charming can get you collaborators,grants (if you meet the right people), and even make your students like you more.
    It seems like a natural part of the system to me. There are many brilliant scientists. I dont think there are that many brilliant scientists who excel socially as well. Those are the ones who get the positions usually. (Though, they could totally revert and become really mean as professors..that's something else all together. They were aat least social enough to get the job in the first place, usually with the help of who they knew (i.e. letters of recc))

  • Curt Fischer says:

    Somebody (I wish I could find it- maybe DC Sessions?) commented a while back that "the goal of science is discovery"- and that this was the sole possible goal, inasmuch as creating a family friendly workplace was completely irrelevant. I needed to ponder that, but I'm gonna call bullshit on it. Process is important.
    I don't understand your argument. I agree that the goal of science is discovery. Not employment or equality or anything like that. I can support the idea that employment, equality, family friendly workplace policies, and so on, because I believe they likely help further the goal of science. When more, and more diverse people choose science as a career, it certainly seems likely that we will get more discoveries.
    But if someone published a meticulous, thorough and exhaustive study that revealed incontrovertible evidence of a negative correlation between policy X and scientific discovery, by definition the best outcome for science (not necessarily for society) would be to remove policy X. I don't think any such studies will be forthcoming any time soon -- in fact if I had to guess I might guess the opposite findings will be increasingly reported -- but if it did, I don't see how you can avoid my conclusion.

  • msphd says:

    Uh... thanks? I think you ended by sort of agreeing with me?
    And glad to hear you're not one of the amnesiacs, DM.
    I think becca's point is that it's not just the DISCOVERY, it's the JOURNEY. Which is true, up to a point (the point being that "publish or perish" is still true, and if your journey doesn't lead you to papers and grants, you're screwed).
    boyie,
    Yeah yeah, nerdy brilliant scientist. Sure. I think maybe that's how it USED to be. And maybe it still is that way for a certain stereotype of men (and a very few extremely geeky women) who fit what a scientist is supposed to look like.
    For the rest of us, it can work against you if you have any social skills at all, or if you look too normal. Then everyone assumes you can't possibly also be smart, because in our society you are EITHER smart OR pretty, you can't be both. Just ask Dr. Isis.
    Or in my case, I look very young. I gave a talk at a meeting recently and had several young professors tell me "You're a very smart kid."
    Uh, I'm approaching 35. I know you're considered a "young scientist" until you're at least 40, but come on.
    I'm tired of having people assume I have plenty of time to continue on as a postdoc forever and therefore don't need a faculty position anytime soon Because I LOOK young???? Give me a break.
    So that's why I say it's just about being smart. It's really not that simple. You'd be amazed how people's assumptions about you... well anyway, maybe you should read my blog sometime.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And glad to hear you're not one of the amnesiacs, DM.
    I am reasonably keen on exploring at all career stages whether or not I hold a view on career issues simply because it is convenient to me personally and professionally or whether I really think it is for the general good.
    As many know from my repeated comments on personal bias and blindness thereof, we cannot do very well at these assessments but we can do better if we at least think about in now and again..

  • antipodean says:

    The JOURNEY?!!!
    When did this turn into a musical montage kick-out scene from American Idol?
    If you are a working scientist it is part of your job to publish your work. If you don't publish then either you haven't done any work or you might as well have not done any work. Or as Francis Crick put it you might as well have spent the time digging your garden.
    This is science. You don't get to do the teary eyed montage 'journey' scene until you get the acceptance letter from the journal. The you get cracking on getting the next one accepted.

  • becca says:

    For some of us, science is a beautiful (abeit dangerously addictive) compulsion...
    "You conceive of science as nothing more than answers to questions?"
    "As a system for generating answers"
    "And what is the purpose of that?"
    "...To know."
    "And what will you do with your knowledge?"
    "...Find out more."
    "But why?"
    "I don't know. It's the way I am"
    (Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars)
    That's it. That's the Goal of Science in the highest form. It's the same as the Goal of Art. It is not so much driven toward an objective but away from one's internal demons that surface if you ever try to stop.
    That's beautiful, and very true. In a sense.
    Yet at the same time, NIH is not funded to make sure clever people can get paid to do what they want (or even what they must). It is funded to improve society. If you love science independent of it's applicability to societal utility, that's wonderful (truly- and I'm right with you on that). But if you want to justify to society imperfections in the system, you have to demonstrate that they are necessary to achieve a larger benefit.
    "I screwed people over so I could discover more stuff" isn't a get out of jail free card.

  • Curt Fischer says:

    Becca, now I agree with you completely.
    I guess we will have to be careful when we say science whether we mean "knowledge" or whether we mean the modern American scientific research enterprise; that seems to have been the source of our disagreement.

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