If you couldn't make your peace on the playground you may not be cut out for PI

May 18 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. As you think, so shall you be.

--William James


I keep returning to a recent post of MsPhD's over at Young Female Scientist with confusion, wonder, disappointment, awe, curiosity, hypotheses, pondering and sadness. These thoughts are engaged from the start:

I think my problem stems from this idea I had that scientists would be somehow better people, more objective- even to the point of admitting their own biases- than most. That these people were my people.
But most of us are not objective. Not even trying to see our own biases, most of the time.
I'm having trouble finding my people among these people.

This bit I've emphasized is very unfortunate and it bears a little examination for ourselves and for our interactions with trainees and others whom we might mentor.


Okay, back to the indictment:

And my impressions of most successful scientists: deeply insecure human beings with low EQs, who are trying to make up for being socially stigmatized as children by being bullies on the scientist playground as adults.
...
And this is kind of how I feel about science in general lately. That there are so many bullies around, we can't get any real science done.

Yeah. First a little clarification. Are "most" successful scientists in this mold? Heck no. That is patently absurd. If we add a little punctuation, MsPhD might possible have a bit of a point. Are "most-successful" scientists bullies with low EQ? In otherwords, a bit out there on the sociopath scale?
On this I might credit the charge. But so what? Science is a human endeavor like any other. Populated by real humans. Yeah, it's nice to think that we in the Tribe of Science are somehow different and better. And maybe we are...in some ways. But we are talking about basic principles of human societal interaction and behavior that have been refined for millennia! So...the past 50 years or so of the modern academic / scientist culture is going to magically dissipate social truths? Right.
And here is a social truth. You get to the pinnacle in most walks of human achievement by deploying others to your own ends. By ruthlessly promoting your agenda ahead of those of others. And yup, in many cases a highly distasteful excess of these traits brings a person to the very highest pinnacles of accomplishment. Business. Politics, Arts (Camille Claudel anyone?). Science.
So if your vision of what is a successful scientist is dominated by the very pinnacles of the competitive, high-profile, high-budget science game....it does not surprise me in the least if your view is enriched in asshats. What does surprise me is that anyone is genuinely surprised to discover this fact.
My advice is that if this bothers you, get out of this particular game. Seriously. The key is returning to the punctuation. Most successful scientists do not play in these GlamourMag games. If by successful we mean people who have careers, doing the science they enjoy and answering the questions that are interesting to them. As I state repeatedly for an audience seemingly dominated by those dazzled by GlamourMagScience this is not the only way to have a science career. There are many ways and in fact the majority of successful scientists measured by this criterion are not in the most-successful category.

In thinking about this, one of my memories of elementary school came back to me with visceral clarity.
I always hated recess, because as a kid I wasn't very athletic at all. I was always bored at recess. I would probably have been happier to sit outside and read a book, but for some reason I think they wouldn't let us take books outside. I remember watching the other kids chasing each other around, throwing balls, hanging off the monkey bars.
And I was just waiting for it to end, so we could go back inside. Probably backwards from how kids are supposed to be, but I was much happier sitting in class.
I kept watching the other kids, trying to figure out what I could learn from them. I couldn't figure out what I was missing, since I couldn't do what they did. Maybe if I could have run around in circles, I would have gotten the data I was missing.

This makes me a bit sad but is frankly the part that holds my interest. It strikes at what to me is the fundamental problem of someone who really, really, really wants the world to be just as they want it to be. Instead of figuring out how to fit into the world as it is. Every time I say stuff like this, of course, the idealists come out of the woodwork to accuse me of being an apologist for status quo. My defense is my usual one. I am reasonably satisfied with the balances I've struck so far in terms of existing within the system as I found it and yet trying to nudge it into what I see as a better way. Naturally, I find my compromises (if they exist) to be minor accommodations in my greater goals. The question for the purists is to ask if they are really happy with their progress toward their greater goals? If you are a disgruntled postdoc, I assume the answer to this question is no. So what are you going to do about it? Continue to wait for the bell to ring? Or realize that you might as well find a game and peer group that suits you?
The fact of the matter is that recess interactions are as much a part of education as are lectures and problem sets. Education is about learning to live life. To opt out of the playground is, to me, just as dumb as opting out of art class or math class. In a science career learning to at least understand the basic functions and skills of the various games is necessary. You don't have to love them and you don't have to be an expert or naturally talented. But you do have to engage.
If you can't do this, I just don't see how you can expect to be a PI. For realz.
And here's a little secret for those of you who really did sit out all social parts of your early education. A friend of mine from the college days put it this way:

"You know, it was never really cool to be stupid"

I return to the nebulous, albeit salient to self, concept of "my people". I get it, I think. I'm not exactly an in-crowd kinda guy. Never have been. Far from it. And yet.
I found a sufficient number of my people in the ranks of those who managed to deal with the playground. Smart, decent folks who at our current age I can say are strong contributors to their respective communities. They are not sociopaths who exploit others, they seem to have retained values and commitments to community, family, country and the world. Smart, yes. Geeky, in many cases. Quirky.
But they each made their peace with the playground, learned to deal with the bullies and advance their own agendas. These are my people.

73 responses so far

  • CyberLizard says:

    I really love this line:

    And here is a social truth. You get to the pinnacle in most walks of human achievement by deploying others to your own ends. By ruthlessly promoting your agenda ahead of those of others. And yup, in many cases a highly distasteful excess of these traits brings a person to the very highest pinnacles of accomplishment. Business. Politics, Arts (Camille Claudel anyone?). Science.

    My acceptance of this truth is what allows me to have contentment with NOT being at the pinnacle of accomplishment because I'm not personally willing to make those sacrifices to get there. Although I'm glad that some people are willing to.
    I never got on well on the playground myself but I never thought that everyone else on the playground was wrong and that my way was better. I recognised that it was I who was different and made it my goal to either adapt or isolate myself as appropriate to the situation and my own feelings.
    I'm not a scientist and never will be a PI, but this general concept applies to most aspects of career pursuit.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM,
    Very well said! Nevertheless, I believe that science over the past 30 years has changed significantly, as have been so many other human endeavors, where big money is the overriding factor in determining success and stardom. Just think of amature sports and the olympic games then and now.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I don't understand how "big money" changes anything Sol. It just isn't good enough in science to draw in people who's sole motivation is money.
    On the back end, is the opportunity for commercial cash-in a disruption of the natural order of those successful enough to have cashable ideas? I would argue that no, the people who are motivated to behave like bullying exploiters in the extreme are as motivated by the Nature paper as they are by start-up stock options....
    In fact this inability to understand just how motivating the arbitrary within-science markers of success are for scientists lets this source of...adverse influence...on the system go ignored.

  • Anonymous says:

    As a disclaimer, I have to say that I stopped reading YFS a while ago. I couldn't take the constant negativity and the projection of one person's experiences to the entire world. I understand that she has had a rough go of things and MANY trainees have similar experiences but her constant implication that her experiences are "how it is" in science are just patently false. Some PIs are assholes and some trainees can't hack it, but to constantly proclaim that this career track will chew up and spit out all who refuse to lie, cheat and steal or that it's all just a game of Russian Roulette, is more than ridiculous.
    "Trust me when I tell you, if you're worrying about it, you're probably not good enough to completely avoid all of the things I write about here.
    Personally, I'm not really convinced there is a good enough."

    MsPhD's situation is sad and I am sorry that she has had these experiences, but looking through her recent posts I can't find much where I agree with her. The May 13th post, in particular, describes the exact opposite of my experiences and I don't think that's just because I have dangly bits, though she may disagree.

  • yolio says:

    Science---like many human endeavors---functions as a sociological self-replication machine, and this is the reason why. There is a balance that plays out between finding your place easily, and working at making it your place. If you are fundamentally different from the status quo, the level of social sophistication that is required for you to find your place is much, much higher. You have to work at it much, much harder.
    What metrics do we apply to determine if our frustration level---which may be much higher than any of our colleagues---is appropriate given that we've chosen a trailblazer path? Or maybe it is all too much for one person to take? How are we supposed to know?
    These are not abstract, academic questions. I am capable of re-arranging my perspective. But should I? Or should I just go do something easier? To be clear, I am not talking about science itself, science is easy. But being a scientist is sometimes much harder than it ought to be.
    MsPhD's post doesn't present the best attitude, but I think she is writing from a place of frustration. She may be concluding that she has already bent herself into scientist-shape quite enough, and she is simply done with it all. It happens.

  • Whoops, I forgot to include my id with the previous post.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I disagree with your opinion that publishing in Nature = accumulating money. In past scientific generations, publishing in Nature was a nice decoration, but it did not determine, which is also true today, whether or not you'll survive as a scientist. Assuring extramural funding of your science today is absolutely a must to survive as a scientist. Moreover, many scientists today are opting to establish their own corporations, usually based on knowledge, patents and expertise they acquired in their academic laboratory, and where accumulating money is the main goal. Because extramural funding is of utmost importance, more important than publishing in Nature, money has became an aim on its own. One important facet of the rule of money in science today is the ease by which it is translated and transferred to other endeavors. That is why science today is much more like a business than ever before. The power that comes with money to the scientist who controls it is much greater than any power a Nature publcation could afford. And last, but not least, money corrupts, publications in CNS do not.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Pl-S and yolio:
    It is a mistake to overpersonalize this, imo. A mistake as a mentor to simply write off YFS's points as simply a reflection of her person and situation. I take it to be perhaps an exaggerated version, but a version nevertheless of a legitimate issue for reflection.
    Wishing that things are as they are not, and insisting that one will move no farther are potentially unnecessary impediments to a person who could genuinely contribute more effectively. It is a responsibility of mentoring (and friendship for that matter) to try to help find a place where someone can be most effective and to help that person see it as well.

  • MsPhD's post doesn't present the best attitude, but I think she is writing from a place of frustration. She may be concluding that she has already bent herself into scientist-shape quite enough, and she is simply done with it all. It happens.

    The thing about MsPhD is that she has convinced herself that the only possible environment in which she is willing to even attempt to be a scientist is in the Top-10 R1 big-science world, which is the one in which she has received all of her training. She claims that the only science she is interested in doing requires totes expensive and rare equipment, and thus if she can't get a high-end tenure-track position at a GlamourSchool, then she is not interested in doing science. The corollary for her is that it is completely unfair that she is not being given the opportunity for a high-end tenure-track position at a GlamourSchool, and anything less is an insult to her magnificence.
    This is basically the same thing as a single-A minor league baseball player scoffing at the opportunity to possibly play AAA ball, and thereby possibly gradually work his way up into the majors, and instead petulantly stamping his foot and saying, "If I can't immediately play for the NY Yankees, then fuck it, I'm not gonna play at all. And by the way, the system is unfair for not letting me play for the Yankees. I am much better than that asshole A-Rod dude, who only got to play for the Yankees by lying and sucking up."
    A corollary point of DrugMonkey's post is that there are other ways to carve out a self-sustaining permanent career as an independent investigator than the immediate transition from post-doc at a GlamourInstitution to tenure-track faculty at a GlamourInstitution.

  • Lou says:

    I think part of it is an age thing - and I don't mean just physical age but mental age. The idea of "Changing oneself and not the world" is something which may be alien to you when you are young, but something you appreciate more as you become older.
    I just might have to ponder and post on this, over at mine (later).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sol, my point is that for some of the more sociopathic excessives it is all about point-scoring of some sort. Of competing and beating others. This leads to all kinds of bad behavior including bullying of other scientists and exploiting trainees.
    For this type of personality, it matters very little whether the marker is grant \( (personally I don't know any of these, that being just the means for most of them), patents, Nature papers, citations, h-indexes or any other measure. My point is that there is nothing special about a changing role of \) if this exists for some people. They would have been reinforced by some other marker in another era.
    Now, it strikes me if we can make the marker a recognition of genuine scientific advance and accomplishment (we do okay at this when looking in retrospect at some senior person's career but...) regardless of more arbitrary markers we could make progress. At the least we would be recognizing the playmaking pointguard (who can also rain 'em with the best of them thankyew) over the flashy selfish dunkmeister or freakishly huge unathletic center....

  • As one who never really "fit in" with the other kids in the playground, I can understand where MsPhD is coming from. But ... as DM so eloquently stated, you have to learn to "to deal with the playground". MsPhD thinks nobody understands her situation and that none of that have moved into junior faculty positions could possibly comprehend what she's going through - all she wants to hear is that she's been wronged and that she needs to get what she wants/deserves. I read the post and had the same reaction as DM but decided not to post a comment at YFS as I would only get skewered again by MsPhD and her ardent admirers as being condescending and lacking in compassion. Life's too short to bother with stuff like that.

  • qaz says:

    And last, but not least, money corrupts, publications in CNS do not.

    Sol, why do you say this? In any endeavor, humans strive to be high ranking. High rank comes with many privileges in any field. A CNS publication provides high rank. Of course, high rank often leads to money, but the really big part of the problem isn't so much personal money (like salary or stock options), but rather lab money. The more GlamourMagz one publishes in, the better one's chance at getting grant money, which leads to running a larger lab, and higher rank.
    PS. By "rank", I do not mean "assistant/associate/full" professor. I mean rather: how do people react when you walk into the room? I mean: do people turn away from you to talk to someone else or away from someone else to talk to you?

  • DM, my point was more elegantly laid-out by CPP, except for the part about anyone wanting to play for the Yankees.
    There are a lot of ways to skin this cat and an insistence in doing it ONE way and then claiming that those who do it this ONE way are either bad people or happen to hit the lottery seems to me a very sheltered way to look at academic science as a whole. One can mentor, suggest and help all one wants, but at some point it is up to every individual as a self-interested entity to survey the landscape and choose a path that will work for them. I think this is true on a broad-scale.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, I would find it easier to agree with you if not for the fact that because \( play such an important role in science today, the selection process of the future scientist aims mainly at the \) rather than the science. You, I'm sure, would argue that the two go hand in hand, but still, \( are more important than science and there are plenty of examples of not-so-good scientists who are full of \), while there are many excellent scientists who stuggle to survive because they're lacking the trait for digging and finding gold.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sol @#15:
    I think you are nearly as myopic as MsPhD!
    For every new asst prof hired on the strength of her/his potential to get grant funding there are 10? 20? probably more hired on the strength of a first author GlamourPub or two. With the explicit understanding that s/he will get more and only secondarily that this will mean stable funding and career.
    Things vary though. I see the tenure / promotions things being argued back and forth strenuously in my academic unit(s). Those who exist in traditions of strong and continued funding but without much nod to IF argue one way- and complain vociferously when someone makes assoc prof on the strength of one just-acquired R01. Those on the other side complain loudly about how even those with strong and sustained funding support and paper output aren't shit because they don't have CNS papers. One hears other measures, total cites, being thrown about now and again as well.
    It is all about markers, not the specific marker in question. and people tend to argue for the measures that make themselves look stellar, surprise, surprise.
    Those who advance the CNS line seem to under play the field-specific differences in ease of getting into those journals. It is likely that those on the funding-is-king line may under play the relative ease of acquiring NIH funding for research on the more applied end of things.
    money corrupts, publications in CNS do not.
    Absolutely and totally wrong. This is my point- that for some people the CNS pub is all they ever need or want and each one just feeds the addiction for more. I know people like this and I argue that the constant trickle of dodgy retractions/corrigenda on flimsy excuses shows that these types go far beyond the people I know relatively directly. When it happens to large labs of full (endowed!) professors with 5 R01s AND HHMI (okay, maybe I exaggerate)... where is the $$ motive? It is ALL about scorekeeping and usually that means about the CNS pubs. Or at least the "get" which is more or less the same.

  • becca says:

    "To opt out of the playground is, to me, just as dumb as opting out of art class or math class."
    I agree. However, I have noticed something. Folks who are spectacularly untalented at drawing can at least make fun of it (I had one or two science profs whose diagrams were such chicken scrawling as to reliably elicit very robust peals of student laughter). Folks who are spectacularly innumerate can frequently find empathy among the ordinary computationally error-prone masses who occasionally struggle with their taxes.
    Generally, misery loves company. But what do you do with your life if you're miserable because of company?
    I don't mean not liking a particular group of people, and feeling awkward because "you haven't found your niche"... I mean being profoundly introverted, autistic, painfully shy, having high social anxiety, being depressed...
    What kind of sad little person is "bad" at recess? What kind of freak hates it?
    I try to remember that, although they are assuredly more pleasant, natural social butterflies are not really morally (or scientifically) superior. It's not a fundamental flaw or even (usually) a reflection of a character failing to be bad at social skills. A good mentor will provide constructive feedback at how to improve social skills, and not assume that if they are lacking, that is related to scientific ability or an individual's motivation to be a scientist.
    I feel that a slightly more compassionate statement is "If you aren't willing to try to learn to make your peace on the playground, you may not be cut out for PI". But then, I know that being 2-3 standard deviations above the mean at math and art, and 2-3 standard deviations below the mean at social graces can warp a kid for life ("but, but, but... recess isn't supposed to be this hard! *bursts into tears*")
    😉
    *idealist coming out of the woodwork*
    "It strikes at what to me is the fundamental problem of someone who really, really, really wants the world to be just as they want it to be."
    What, like Ghandi or MLK or Margaret Mead*?
    ("Be the change that you want to see in the world.", "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ", "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.")

  • bsci says:

    Perhaps someone else can crunch the #'s, but I think there's something else wrong with Sol's money argument. There is probably more money supporting more scientists (even relative to population size) than probably any time in history and definitely more than Sol's good 'ole days of 30 years ago.
    Even PhD lab techs can do real science and get healthy wages (i.e. $50-$90K per year). There are more companies hiring scientists (PhD or not) and paying them good money to do science. There are more schools with larger science departments hiring more faculty.
    Undeniably the # of PhDs had increased faster than the number of faculty positions at top places and those are desirable jobs to many. Those jobs now offer more money and prestige than before, but focusing on just those when talking about the money issues ignores the overall growth of the number of people getting paid to do good science.

  • bsci says:

    I also wanted to comment on CCP #9. I think you're criticism is off base. According to MsPhds blog, she is currently seeing a professional for mental health issues. Her blog only presents a portion of her life, but it seems like it's written by someone who has had issues with depression. While I won't diagnose via internet (and I'm not professionally qualified to do so anyway), I think it's important to realize she might not be able to react the same ways to positive and negative events in her life as you do. (She really might also have had more negative things beyond her control happen to her than you did) If, in real life, you knew someone with clinical depression, would you respond to them in the same way you do to MsPhd?

  • Sol's whining because back when he entered the biomedical workforce, it was enough for him to be a white dude with a PhD, and he was set for life. Now there's all kinds of non-white-dude rabble entering the biomedical workforce, and mediocre white dudes like Sol don't like to accept that they probably wouldn't have been able to survive in a genuinely open competitive environment.
    So instead he complains about how all these rabble only care about money, are fraudsters, are corrupt, aren't creative, etc. It's just a pathetically transparent ego-protecting defense mechanism.

  • I also wanted to comment on CCP #9. I think you're criticism is off base. According to MsPhds blog, she is currently seeing a professional for mental health issues.

    I have never made any judgment whatsoever about the reasons for MsPhD's perceptions. Regardless of those reasons, she has made public pronouncements concerning her perceptions, and those pronouncements are worthy of critical analysis.

  • daedalus2u says:

    Jake had a post on the neurological basis of envy and schadenfreude.
    http://scienceblogs.com/purepedantry/2009/04/neuroscience_of_envy_and_schad.php
    Another commenter asked how could such a thing evolve and I pointed out that when ever there are limited resources there is a zero sum and competition for those resources. The archetypal limited resource is females, or things that can be converted into females, food, territory, status, gold, diamonds, RO1 grants, glamour mag authorships, Nobel Prizes. Such things do not have an absolute value, they only have value in that they are scarce and can be converted into a resource that is limited (i.e. females).
    We are no where close to exhausting the supply of scientific discovery. Why is there such competition? That competition isn’t for scientific discovery which is essentially unlimited, it is for the zero sum things that scientific discovery can be converted into.
    Many of the competitions that are set up are abstract and have little or no relationship to the real world; they are like chess, or playground games. Children and adults can set up a pecking order based on the outcome of games, arguably a better way than by fighting to the death, but arbitrary and only part of the “real world” if you let it be. If you don’t play that game, you can’t lose it. In the words of Homey D. Clown, “Homey don't play that game!”

  • whimple says:

    For every new asst prof hired on the strength of her/his potential to get grant funding there are 10? 20? probably more hired on the strength of a first author GlamourPub or two. With the explicit understanding that s/he will get more and only secondarily that this will mean stable funding and career.
    This doesn't describe the planet I live on. Everyone I ever see is hired on the basis of their ability to bring in cash. The GlamourPubs are a means to the cash, oh yeah, and also good job on the great science, but hey wow, nice cash!

  • But we are talking about basic principles of human societal interaction and behavior that have been refined for millennia!

    It took me forever to admit that people don't neatly differentiate into groups of "outcasts" who are just so smart that they're above recess and can't wait to get back into class vs. "in-crowders" who like recess (or at least participate in outdoor activities) and therefore can't possibly like (or excel in) academic endeavors too. That's how it is in movies. (Particularly those of the '80s and '90s. 🙂 Deep down, I always suspected this to be the case. It's just that admitting it also meant admitting that I was wrong about a lot of things.
    I know that I can't possibly understand at this stage of my life. But the bad parts of being a scientist as described by many professors and postdocs either in the blogosphere or in conversations with me sound just like the bad parts of being a member of numerous other professions. No better and no worse. They're not excusable, but they're not unique to careers in science, either.
    I worked often enough in corporate environments to see just how much ass-kissing and leeching off others many managers did to ascend the executive ladder. Simultaneously, many others seemed to be having a truly grand time doing what they did and winning promotions on the strength of their hard work. There were more than enough of the latter for me to recognize anew that my abject unhappiness in those environments had almost everything to do with my not being in the career that was right for me. It definitely wasn't because everyone who was thriving in those environments sucked and had no soul.
    And we're talking Corporatedom, here! (And I won't even talk about Hollywood . . .)

    But they each made their peace with the playground, learned to deal with the bullies and advance their own agendas.

    It is one thing to realize that you personally are in a shitty situation that you don't deserve and earnestly try to get out of it. ("Earnest" as in "willing to try a wide variety of solutions" . . .) It's another to insist that your whole profession is insurmountably shitty. I do not know how one can diss the idea of learning to play the game and genuinely wish to encourage more women and/or minorities to go into hard science at the same time. Not trying to derail the thread: it's just that I keep struggling with myself over it, and I just grow more and more convinced that it's the best attitude for not only me but also anyone who might look at me as a role model later on.

  • bsci says:

    CCP, I think the ideas and broad generalizations she posts about are completely open game for criticism. I've criticized them before and I'll criticize them again. Attacking the her state of mind directly by projecting an insulting point of view onto her is off base. For example you wrote:
    The corollary for her is that it is completely unfair that she is not being given the opportunity for a high-end tenure-track position at a GlamourSchool, and anything less is an insult to her magnificence.
    It's also worth noting that MsPhd had frequently written about considering potential careers in industry and her friends who have had serious troubles there so this opinion of yours isn't even accurate based on what we know from her blog.
    I guess one reason I'm latching onto your comment is that this specific post struck me as being written by a very sad person in a difficult situation. Addressing the gaps in logic like DM did is one thing, but blaming the person for everything that brought her there just seems wrong to me.

  • [blockquote]It took me forever to admit that people don't neatly differentiate into groups of "outcasts" who are just so smart that they're above recess and can't wait to get back into class vs. "in-crowders" who like recess (or at least participate in outdoor activities) and therefore can't possibly like (or excel in) academic endeavors too.[/blockquote]
    I can really relate to this. I think it's one of the most damaging misconceptions that children can hold- the thought that they can be interested in books or interested in sports but not both.

  • whimple says:

    Actually, I take it back.
    Our first consideration is "does the science fit with what we're doing?". Then we move on to "is it good science?" and then to "do we think this person is fundable?"
    After the person is hired, then these priorities rapidly reorganize to: 1) where is the cash? 2) how good is the science? 3) how well does it fit?
    As long as the cash is flowing, it's mostly all good. If the cash isn't coming in, it's mostly all bad.

  • @Joseph: I fervently agree. The sad thing is that the people who encouraged me to hold on to this conviction honestly thought they were doing me a favor.

  • I guess one reason I'm latching onto your comment is that this specific post struck me as being written by a very sad person in a difficult situation. Addressing the gaps in logic like DM did is one thing, but blaming the person for everything that brought her there just seems wrong to me.

    I have no doubt that MsPhD is a sad person in what she perceives as an impossible situation. I have been reading her blog for years, and my characterization of her perception of her situation is completely accurate. I fail to see where I have "blamed" her for anything.
    She has stated over and over again that she perceives herself to be more competent and creative than her peers, that she would only tolerate a high-end tenure-track position at a GlamourSchool, that her peers who secure such positions do so because they suck up or otherwise "work the system", and that it is unfair that she has not been offered such a position. This is just a restatement of what she has said on her own blog over and over again.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I think whimple's description in #27 is an excellent summary of what I have tried to point out. Of course, CPP would attempt to take my statements and convert them into a personality defect, white dude BS, ego-protecting trip, whatever. At the end of the day, scientists in the 21st century pursue first and formost funding for their scientific ideas. They invest great deal of their time and energy getting the money, managing it, building their scientific business and manning it instead of doing science. They also being measured and evaluated by their suprevisors (administrators) based on their monitary value. As the amount of money grows, so does the scientist's value. Once the money is gone, none of the CNS publications count for anything.
    Contrary to the crap that CPP is spreading here, my success in science was based on my scientific work, my CNS publications and the advancements in knowledge that my work brought forward. When the time came to get extramural funding for my research, I managed to do so and to compete equally with the CPPs of the world. Nevertheless, the need to do that surely took away a lot of the excitement and the pleasure of doing science. No matter how deep DM and others burry their heads in the sand, the truth of the matter is that the declared goal of the scientific endeavor i.e., to advance our knowledge and improve the quality of life for all, has become secondary to competing for $$ that fund this endeavor with all the drawbacks that such competition entails.

  • msphd says:

    I stopped reading the comments partway down. There is something particularly strange reading about oneself as if one is not in the room (pseudonym or not, it's a little weird).
    Mostly I think qaz (#13) made the main point for me.
    I should probably reiterate for the likes of CPP (and DM too for that matter), that I have been told repeatedly by not just my mentor but by EVERYONE IN MY FIELD (junior AND senior profs at all levels of institutions; and multiple NIH program directors) that:
    1. In order to get a faculty position - ANY FACULTY POSITION at a university with a department in my field - requires a CNS paper
    2. In order to get NIH funding - ANY NIH FUNDING - requires a CNS paper
    And I have been learning the hard way just how political it can be (AT LEAST IN MY FIELD) to get a CNS paper.
    I don't claim that all fields are equally corrupt as mine.
    Yes, I could try to switch to another field where I could perhaps publish a myriad of smaller papers, but it's a bit late in the game and not as trivial as you'd like to make it sound ("Oh it's so simple, why doesn't she just do XYZ and stop complaining?").
    And yes, having "dangly bits" does make a HUGE difference, which you can't really understand until you realize not having them means doors are constantly swinging shut in your face.
    So these particular points are not my PERCEPTIONS, they are not EXAGGERATIONS.
    They are essentially the "rules" of hiring and funding in my field.
    In other words, the "successful" scientists on search committees and study sections (at least in my field) who agree with your standpoint, that CNS papers don't matter, etc. are not powerful enough to override the "most-successful" sociopathic ones, who ultimately decide on all the funding and top-tier publications.
    I can't say for sure how many sociopathic scientists it takes to spoil the bunch, maybe as few as one if he's powerful enough (and yes, the most powerful ones are all men in my field).
    And another thing - while I'm at it - @CPP in particular: I guess it hasn't occurred to you that my "mentors" essentially refuse to "let" me do anything less than "the best".
    They refuse to permit me to publish my papers in what they consider "lesser" journals than are worthy of the work. Because it doesn't serve their purposes, or mine, is how they rationalize it I guess.
    Which means that instead of having "lesser" papers, what I actually have is many fewer papers.
    And instead of moving on, I am trapped into an all-or-nothing decision: leave, and get no recommendation letters at all; or stay and continue to gamble that my mentors are going to help me (which so far they have not).
    Hmm. Science or no science? What would you choose?
    It's not so simple as we would like it to be. I am trying to exhaust all the obvious and not-so-obvious possibilities. And I am trying to decide what I want and how badly I want it.
    And that's actually really hard, because I'm getting a lot of mixed messages, not just here in the blogosphere where you can get both encouragement and told that you're an idiot, but also in the Real World where I'm really not sure who to trust.
    So it's not entirely just my "perception" that my work is good - it's also theirs (my mentors'), for better or worse.
    They have certain expectations for me and they won't let me back down even when I'm clearly so depressed as to be barely functioning. It sounds kind of bizarre, I know, but I'm not creating this situation entirely on my own. And yes, I have tried to draw in other people as mentors, but nobody really wants to stick their neck out for me.
    But yes, what bsci said is more or less accurate, too. I am pretty depressed, and much of what I write about on my blog is trying to make sense of how I'm feeling about these issues. So you should take it in that light. However, I would argue that (most of?) my depression is a product of the way I have been treated in science.
    I think the comments on my blog (both the content and numbers thereof) speak for themselves in making the point that MANY OTHER POSTDOCS have also been treated as I have, and are being given the same kind of "mentoring" as I have.
    Anyway DM, I think I appreciate (?) your concern (?) but I also think there's a bit of defensiveness here as usual. I think I get it, but like several people said, maybe we should all think about these issues some more and see where that leads us. I see your post sparked some interesting discussion as usual. I guess it's something that anyone reads my blog and notices.

  • neurolover says:

    "I can't say for sure how many sociopathic scientists it takes to spoil the bunch, maybe as few as one if he's powerful enough (and yes, the most powerful ones are all men in my field)."
    The management consultants say one, one bad apple in a workplace spoils the whole batch, unless properly managed. That's one of the big parts of this discussion that we ignore, the field-specific practices. It is a symptom of peer-review: extraordinary power is given to a group of "peer" judges. If those peers are honorable (I like to say "judge the work of others as they judge their own", as best as any inherently biased and flawed human can), the field can survive and thrive, and not eat its young. If they (or even one very powerful person) is not honorable, they can use the mechanism of peer review arbitrarily to benefit themselves. And, there are are few checks and balances to prevent it, once they've become established and settled.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes, I could try to switch to another field where I could perhaps publish a myriad of smaller papers, but it's a bit late in the game and not as trivial as you'd like to make it sound
    I do not think it is "trivial". but if one has really come to the conclusion that a particular aspect of science (note I do not say "field") is not going to work out, the substantially non-trivial needs to be an option.
    You seem to think that I do not understand the nature of these most-successful GlamourMag-or-nothing types. Believe you me I do. Very well indeed.
    What I think trainees within such labs do not understand is that while these types may be engaged in a common game and seem to make up a "field" of research, they are not the be all and end all of "fields" as defined scientifically.
    If what one considers to be the scientific field one is interested in inhabiting is the competitive game, that is one thing.
    But if one is interested in scientific questions, my major point stands. That a career is best served by making peace with the system as it is. Not insisting on playing the big-ticket research-infrastructure game from day one. Not insisting on a job location where things that one does not have or cannot immediately do are the threshold. There are many ways to have a satisfying career that (in my direct experience*) are not immediately obvious to the GlamorMagLab trainee.
    *As always, I speak to the experiences expressed by MsPhD that resonate with me because of similarity to other postdocs of my personal acquaintance. It is easy to swerve off onto the particulars of any one trainee or training experience but I believe my points generalize beyond any one individual.

  • Kate says:

    I am really struggling to figure out how to articulate how I feel about this.
    First, I want to commend both DrugMonkey and Comrade PhysioProf for being allies to women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. I know this is where you are both coming from, you have demonstrated it many times, and I appreciate it.
    But I have to call you out on some stuff. Because, hey, that's how allies get to be better allies, right?
    DM, I was pretty offended when I read this post of yours. Your tone is adultist and condescending, perhaps even dismissive. You went to great efforts to claim MsPhD's experiences to not be real, to not reflect the experience of most academic scientists, and went on to give us YOUR real picture of science. This included getting real about how it all works, which seems to include giving up on certain ideals and fights. And the implication, all along, was that if you can't handle it, to get out.
    CPP, in these comments and elsewhere I have seen you criticize MsPhD for her big ego and her projection of her experience as universal in a way that is unflattering.
    On the one hand, older (more senior in the hierarchy at least) men should not have to keep criticisms to themselves when dealing with younger women. But I wonder if there is a way to do it and use it as a mentoring opportunity, rather than an attack-fest (and if you didn't think you would incite that at least a little bit while writing the post DM, you were probably kidding yourself).
    My reality, as a female scientist recently on the tenure-track, is that science DOES spit out many, many capable, intelligent, interesting, creative young women. I was a union organizer in the sciences in grad school and most of the women who I befriended and got to join the union left academic science. In fact, I can only think of one out of the dozen or more I knew who landed a job of any kind in academic science. Some of them were frustrated like MsPhD. Some were resigned. Some convinced themselves it had nothing to do with their lack of dangly bits. Some decided they wanted to have a kid and couldn't imagine doing it while being a scientist. Some of them had husbands or partners who made them leave science.
    But at the end of the day, however much you or others may criticize MsPhD's projections or attitude, I identify far more with her than with you. I saw women stifled, held back, ignored while men sailed through the same labs. I saw undergraduate men get attention in labs while women floundered in the dissertation stage. I saw women leave labs even though that lab was what they really wanted to do.
    I'm not totally sure how it is that I made it. I think being in the union was a big part of it, because I had a strong support network of people who understood the institutional problems that caused individual stress. And one of the things we used to say was that grad school doesn't weed out the weak, it weeds out the strong. The strong are the ones who get to grad school, look at the insanity and the faculty who try to crush you, and say they'd rather be somewhere else.
    Now, I'm in a department I adore with colleagues I respect. My grad university was a particularly bad place to be a grad student and I do now know that that's not how all universities are (who knows, maybe MsPhD is at the institution I graduated from!). I'm happy I made it, and happy in my job. But I still mourn the friend who committed suicide, the other friends who left science, the friends who think it was their fault they couldn't hack it, rather than an inherently sexist institution.
    Sorry for hijacking the comments. I'll try to keep it shorter next time.

  • Grad Girl says:

    "I am reasonably satisfied with the balances I've struck so far in terms of existing within the system as I found it and yet trying to nudge it into what I see as a better way. Naturally, I find my compromises (if they exist) to be minor accommodations in my greater goals."
    Like Kate, I my response to this post is conflicted. In large part I agree, that on some level, you need to be able to deal with all types. To work within the system...but. But sometimes I feel like compromises erode my self respect. I am in the lab of a super-successful PI, grants, pubs, big fucking retention package. He doesn't have a great track-record with female students. This is no mystery to me--when drunk he'll hit on me, when sober his interactions with me are more personal (in terms of attacks or praise) than those with The Boys. And I have given up on changing the situation, having realized that calling him on shit was in no way helping *me*. I am getting along, so I can get out with my PhD. But I am in no way making things better for women that will come afterwards. And the idealist in me, the one who sees the world not as it is, but as it should be, does not respect this. I guess it is just hard for me to decide when the accommodations move from minor to major.
    Also, I am sure that there is history here, but to the uninitiated CPP's comments seem geared towards kicking someone when they are down. Just one person's perception though.

  • Anonymous says:

    Yet another post consisting of DM and CPP (two older and higher-ranking men) inciting a gossip-fest about MsPhD (a younger and lower-ranking woman). I hope you realize how unprofessional you look, that you as supposed successful PIs would spend as much time as you do sniping about some postdoc's blog. from being familiar with her blog and yours it is clear that she doesn't snipe about you two, specifically, nearly to the extent that you two do to her. You should be ashamed.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    It's quite surreal to see the reactions some of Ms.PhD's posts generate on blogs like this one. It's like "Alarm bells, Ms.PhD is deriding academic science again, we must immediately spring to its defense!" The defense itself goes along familiar lines:
    1) Re-interpret what she is saying in a way that makes her look like some kind of idiot (strawman tactic).
    2) Proceed to bash the strawman (under the guise of giving Ms.PhD some "mentoring").
    3) Announce that if only Ms.PhD would look at things my way and follow my advices she would be much better off.
    4) Declare that the real reason Ms.PhD writes stuff like this is because she hates academic science for not having given her what she thinks she deserves. Or maybe she does it because she's depressed, or unstable, or...
    So let's consider what the fuss is about this time. Ms.PhD mentions that she was always bored at recess and didn't feel inclined to run around with the other kids, not seeing the fun in it. So she sat and watched them, trying to figure out why they enjoyed it, while waiting for classes to begin again. In reaction to this, DM puts up the following bizarre strawman:
    "It strikes at what to me is the fundamental problem of someone who really, really, really wants the world to be just as they want it to be. Instead of figuring out how to fit into the world as it is."
    Dude, what's the problem?! It's not like she was hiding in the toilets, scared that some kid might come and talk to her. She was sitting in full view watching the other kids as the played, completely open to being approached by any like-minded kid. Wishing that there might be one or more like-minded kids is a wee bit different from really, really, really wanting the world to be just as she wants it to be. And she *had* figured out how to fit into the world as it was... This kind of behavior shows character, not simply a refusal to engage. (In the same situation I forced myself to "engage" and join in the kids' games, even though it bored me, because I was scared of being seen as an outcast. Is that better?)
    The strawman-bashing then proceeds along the lines of "If you refuse to engage, like Ms.PhD does, then you will have problems..."
    The reality that is clear from YFS blog is that she engages a whole lot in academia: instigates collaborations, mentors students, networks at conferences,... Her point is that in doing all this she doesn't find many kindred spirits and wishes she could find more. It's truly bizarre how an understandable sentiment like that, which is surely shared by many in all walks of life, including very successful people, could provoke the outcry in this post.
    It looks like the true goal of these YFS-bashing posts is to browbeat her into denying the reality of her experiences, or at least keep quiet about them.

  • Anonymous says:

    The folks defending YFS here have clearly only read parts of her blog. Remember the recent posts on her blog asking what her publication record was like (the question was in response to her assertion that her rejection from faculty positions was unfair) ? Her response to that question was to become completely indignant and assert that this question was irrelevant, and would also 'out' her. Now, I posted a very polite reply explaining why the question was relevant, and explaining why answering the question of how many first author papers (or a ballpark) she had would not out her.
    The comment was completely innocuous and non-judgemental, but she did not allow it to be posted. Thinking this may have been an error, I sent in the comment again. Same result, comment never appeared.
    Now, to those of you who assert that this blog entry constitutes ganging up on YFS, my reply is that apparently many resonable comments are not posted. This type of cross-commenting on other blogs becomes a perfectly reasonable way to respond.
    PS: I have read the YFS blog from the beginning, and CPP's characterization is completely accurate.

  • bsci says:

    I'll put forward that part of the problem here is that it's difficult for anonymous people to build a nuanced vision of an anonymous person presenting a filtered portion of her life. I'm not saying YFS should de-anonymize (and that's probably a really bad idea considering how she talks about her colleagues & advisors), but it's hard to do nuance without the facts. Simply knowing the relevant subfield of research could give a better picture of the situation and perhaps others can step forward to provide direct mentorship and help. Does anyone know fields that REQUIRE a CNS paper before getting an R01? That require CNS papers for faculty positions even at tier 2 or 3 universities? The story doesn't add up and it will never add up without details that we do not and will not have.
    This is probably not possible with anonymity so the rhetoric stays heated. While some of the disagreements with DM are accurate, I think DM has done a good job of trying be critical and breaking down YFS's extreme over-generalizations while still knowing the limitations of our knowledge. Perhaps one "solution" would be for YFS to either directly email DM or some other intermediary blogger she trusts with some more personal inform so that she can tap into a larger network of people to help her without compromising her anonymity.
    On the other hand, CPP seems to enjoy insulting people who are in difficult situations. All I ask of CPP is that even if you are right based on facts, perhaps realize that someone with depression might react to the facts in a different way than you do and your interpretations don't fit that person's situation. How do your comments contribute positively to this discussion? Do don't seem to care about helping YFS and, unlike DM, your comments on this issue don't seem to be contributing to general mentoring and teaching people about scientific career development.

  • neurolover says:

    Grad Girl: Your situation sucks, and yes, a sordid underbelly of the system that relies on mentoring/peers for all evaluation. I wish I could tell you to fight (report harassment, tell others about it) . . . . But, you're right, you are not going to benefit from doing anything but getting out and maintaining a cordial relationship.
    Do document incidents contemporaneously, though, and show the document to a friend. That way, if things go awry, you will have contemporaneous documentation to rely upon. You want that, for when/if "the accommodations change from minor to major", however you define them.

  • msphd says:

    @Anon, you must have missed the other comments on my blog where others agreed that there is no way for me to discuss my field or publication record anonymously. I deleted your comments BECAUSE YOU GOT AN ANSWER TO IT. You just didn't like it.
    I think you're missing the point about what a MINORITY American women postdocs are, or you'd have done the math to understand why this is so impossible for me to do. I think we said that already, but I'm saying it again.
    Also, @bsci, APP and others here agree that there really are fields like this. You really can't accuse me of exaggerating or overgeneralizing when I'm saying this is how MY field is, and others are saying yeah, their (different!) fields are like this, too.
    There are questions, shall we say @DM, that one cannot work on, without fighting the CNS fight. I think maybe you know this, and maybe I understand what you're proposing I should do, to which I have to respond:
    Q: Doing some kind of science but not being able to ask the really interesting questions for really stupid, bully-game reasons?
    A: MASSIVE FAIL.

  • yolio says:

    @DM. I don't have time to keep up with the blog wars, but I have to say your response to my comment sort of pissed me off. The implication is that my perspective is "personal" while yours, I suppose, is the paragon of objectivity? What the hell man.
    All around, I am not sure why you feel it is appropriate to appoint yourself mentor to some stranger. After all, the advice you are offering is hardly novel: trying to get along with others is important. I am thinking that MsPhD has considered this before. Before offering up platitudes, you might consider that MsPhD knows exactly what she is doing.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The implication is that my perspective is "personal" while yours, I suppose, is the paragon of objectivity? What the hell man.
    All around, I am not sure why you feel it is appropriate to appoint yourself mentor to some stranger. After all, the advice you are offering is hardly novel: trying to get along with others is important. I am thinking that MsPhD has considered this before.

    Look this is blogging and what you do in some varieties is riff off of something you've been reading. Usually to make a larger or more general point. Which is what I've tried to do here, clearly not entirely successfully. I am not trying to help MsPhD with her situation. What I am trying to do is help with those in similar, potentially less extreme versions.
    I say it is a mistake to over personalize the discussion because we are not in possession of all the pertinent facts. Also, a solution for one person may not address the general situation as well as a general solution might. This is where APP's problem with straw-man and "bashing MsPhD" come into the picture, btw. I happen to think that the general issues are real, not a straw construct but perhaps that is because I know a swath of postdocs in similar situations as that seemingly described by MsPhD. If there is a general kernel of truth here, does it not follow that there should be general solutions that do not depend on extracting further details from MsPhD about her real life? I happen to think so.
    kate@34: I suppose my somewhat intentional move of leaving the gender bias part of the equation out of this was because I was seeking the general kernel. The one I was thinking about is not uniquely gender associated in my experience. Plenty of idealistic men trainees who really, really, really want this career to be a idealized meritocracy of ideas.
    This is not to say that there are not gender influences and in particular the playground metaphor lends itself to consideration of what are boys games and what are girls games on the playground and how gender norms are enforced. So perhaps picking up on this metaphor and stretching it too far was unwise because it almost necessarily taps into this issue. Food for thought at the least, so thanks for the comment.

  • Anonymous says:

    "@Anon, you must have missed the other comments on my blog where others agreed that there is no way for me to discuss my field or publication record anonymously. I deleted your comments BECAUSE YOU GOT AN ANSWER TO IT. You just didn't like it."
    The idea that you cannot say, for example, "I am in biochemistry, and have between two and three first author publications in the past five years" because this would out you, is absurd.

  • BP says:

    I have to agree with Whimple. (#23, #27) When I read the comment at #16, my first thought was this guy is fucking delusional. Then when I saw it was DM, my jaw dropped because his advice is usually so good (like comment #33, which is spot on). I'd go so far as to call that comment (#16 about CNS vs funding) dangerously bad advice.

  • becca says:

    "Plenty of idealistic men trainees who really, really, really want this career to be a idealized meritocracy of ideas." This is quite true. And Yet...if I do consider gender in this thread, I get a slight bit squeemish.
    Why don't I ever hear about men being chastised by more senior scientists for not having 'the right attitude'? It must happen from time to time.
    DM your whole approach (inadvertantly, I'm sure) taps into my feelings about the prevalent message "there is no right way to be a woman scientist". I think there are at least some of us junior women in science who get told we don't have the right attitude- by people who are far too enlightened to say we don't have the right aptitude... yet haven't considered how socialization affects how we express our attitudes (sometimes I wonder if they even consider if they have any accurate perspective to judge how we feel).
    "I'm telling you to get out of science to protect your feelings" sounds a lot nicer than "You don't belong here"; but it's really the same message.
    As a somewhat tangential point...stretching the playground analogy to pieces, it occured to me that fitting in at recess was both easier and more essential for the boys. Maybe that's a reflection of the quirks in my upbringing though.

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree with the previous poster about MsPhD and her publication record. Based upon issues alluded to in her blog, there is a simple explanation for both observations (inability to land a job and unwillingness to disclose pub record), which is that she has no first author publications in the last several years. If this fact were disclosed, this would reduce the credibility of her rants a bit, while underscoring the real issue.
    Whose 'fault' this lack of publications is matters in terms of the underlying mechanism, but it is not relevant to the faculty search process itself. Without publications, it is unreasonable to assert that one 'deserves' a faculty position.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    stretching the playground analogy to pieces, it occured to me that fitting in at recess was both easier and more essential for the boys.
    I think this is a point that I did not sufficiently consider.
    Do you think that exhorting trainees to express minimum competency in the game is the same thing as telling the female trainees to be more like men? I am not entirely ready to concede that all skills needed in the science career are somehow inherently male skills...

  • antipodean says:

    DM
    I can't think of any skills needed in a science career that are inherently male skills. I can think of a few that might be regarded as inherently female, perhaps.
    Becca said "Why don't I ever hear about men being chastised by more senior scientists for not having 'the right attitude'? It must happen from time to time."
    It happens. It happened in my case with justification a couple of times. Instead of whinging to the internet I sorted my shit out instead. You don't justifiably get chewed out when you are performing above expectations. Then again maybe we just don't write about it so as to avoid damaging our apparently importantly d00dly images?
    PIs like everybody else like to avoid confrontation. So by the time you are getting overtly chewed out I might hazard a guess that the subtle and unsubtle hints have been ignored/missed. But then again I have had relatively good mentors?

  • Lora says:

    DM, I get it that you are trying to explain the concept of upward management and reality and pragmatism to the younguns. I completely and utterly understand that, and it's good to know how to play the game if playing the game is something you want to do with your life. But some PIs are just douchebags, and there's no amount of upward management or pragmatism that will fix them. I have had three in my career, two of whom are still employed. The thing to do about douchebags is to figure out as fast as possible that they ARE douchebags, and then the second thing to do is to run far far away. Get out. As Grad Girl noted, it's a fight you cannot win. Don't wait till you've been there two years and have reached the pinnacle of frustration and are in a sticky spot, just leave.
    Maybe more useful advice, to many people who are ill-served by academic PIs, would be tips on How To Spot A Douchebag, and how to get out quickly without inflicting too much damage to one's own rep. I see far too many students and postdocs who are trapped in the "it won't happen to me" thought, even as they know they are walking into the jaws of death, towards a PI who is known for abusive behavior, and then they find themselves in a spot where it's too late to find a different PI or they are unsure of how to quit without looking like a loser. How would you recommend people size up a potential boss? How would you recommend they bail gracefully when leaving an abusive nutjob? How do they banish the "it won't happen to me" demon and realize that they are not the super-special exception?
    My feeling is that YFS' PI is just one of these douchebags and she should bail to find a better life, although clinical depression is a definite handicap in that regard.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    But some PIs are just douchebags, and there's no amount of upward management or pragmatism that will fix them. I have had three in my career, two of whom are still employed. The thing to do about douchebags is to figure out as fast as possible that they ARE douchebags, and then the second thing to do is to run far far away. Get out.
    This is entirely consistent with what I am saying and in fact I am extending it to entire sub-circles within science. If that whole highly competitive, scooping, back-biting, CNS-or-nothing way of doing science is not for you, get out. There are other satisfying pathways.

  • Anonymous says:

    "How to ID a douchebag PI before signing on", would make an excellent new blog entry, DM.

  • Luigi says:

    Douchebag* PIs are not hard to spot. Before signing on, check the percentage of people that have gone on to successful independent careers. Good PIs have a trainee success rate well in excess of 50%. Douchebag PIs have a low trainee success rate, a high incidence of 'lab lifers' (people who are useful data gatherers but are browbeaten into perceived dependence on the PI, much like abused spouses**), and often a series of very short-term employees (people who bail after less than a year).
    This is elementary homework you MUST do before joining a lab. Ask the PI. PIs who are good at training will be proud of their trainee's success. PIs who don't give a shit will dodge the question or blame the failures on others. Even if you are already in a lab, you should stop right now and think about this. If the odds of success from your current launch pad are low, then MOVE ON NOW. Cut your losses. I have yet to see anyone salvage a career from a bad situation.
    * 'Douchebag', by my practical definition, may not actually mean someone who is a dickwad. He/she may actually be a very nice well-meaning person. It doesn't matter. You have basically one shot at your career.
    ** I could go on and on with this one. The short version: NEVER EVER trust a PI that says bad stuff about lab members behind their backs. Good PIs criticize in private and have nothing but good things to say in public. You may be in favor now but some day you WILL get the fuck end of the story. Don't be there.

  • Alex says:

    If that whole highly competitive, scooping, back-biting, CNS-or-nothing way of doing science is not for you, get out. There are other satisfying pathways.

    One thing that I think you're saying that a lot of people are missing is that "get out" doesn't mean "leave science" and it doesn't even necessarily mean "leave academic science." It just means stop spending your time trying to rise to the top of the sorts of departments and/or subfields where that is the essence of the game. There are ways to be successful in science without playing that type of game.
    Somebody could always say that the field should change, or the department should change. Sure they should. If you are an established person moving into that sort of department or field, fight the good fight. But if you're a junior person, why would you want to fight that fight? You'll probably lose, and even if you win it won't be nearly as much fun as getting your start somewhere else. Find the field and/or department where you'll do best and go there and get yourself to a good position.

  • Kate says:

    I think Becca@46's point is an excellent one. I have been working hard to professionalize a couple female grad students in my program, not because they aren't good scientists and/or don't have a future, but because their insecurities were getting in the way of either their functioning or faculty perceptions about their competency. It's been wonderful to build a relationship with them and to have them know I've got their back. And it's been really cool watching, in real time, faculty esteem for them increase this year. This is part of the reason we need more female mentors: even well-meaning men are rarely going to be able to build the kind of relationship with a female mentee where she can cry behind closed doors, then dare to devote weeks of her semester working to change herself. Were I the mentee, I just can't imagine feeling safe in front of a man being that vulnerable, even if that's not fair to the man and a result of cultural conditioning.

  • qaz says:

    'Douchebag', by my practical definition, may not actually mean someone who is a dickwad. He/she may actually be a very nice well-meaning person. It doesn't matter.

    This is an important point. PIs are not something special just because they have reached that magical PI status. They are human beings. Some of them are jerks. Some of them are nice people who just can't manage a lab. They have good days and bad days, strengths and foibles.

    You have basically one shot at your career.

    I don't think this is true. I know of a number of cases where people have had to back up and start over. And have ended up very happy with successful scientific careers. For example, one case I know, the student had an incompatibility with his grad school mentor. He returned back to his UG mentor, found a new GS path, and just got a tenure-track job at a top-flight ResearchU on the west coast. Sure, he's older than he might have been, but he's doing well. Several people I know who had poor first post-docs went on to second very successful post-docs. I even know people who didn't get tenure at institution 1 and created very successful careers at a second institution. It's a big world.
    Actually, writing this comment, I realize two very interesting things. (1) All of my mentors have been wonderful people who would go to the mat for their students. Reading this discussion makes it seem like mentors are all evil, manipulative jerks. I think most mentors are actually interested in helping their students become better scientists and make successful careers. (2) In the cases where things have gone badly, the key to being able to start over has been a network of friends who can help catch you. Take the example above. My friend came to me [I was a post-doc in that lab] and said he was leaving science because of the situation with his GS mentor. I convinced him to call up his old UG mentor who gave him a temporary job and helped him get back on his feet.

  • neurolover says:

    "Do you think that exhorting trainees to express minimum competency in the game is the same thing as telling the female trainees to be more like men? I am not entirely ready to concede that all skills needed in the science career are somehow inherently male skills..."
    Yes, I think that exhorting trainees to express minimum competence in the game as it is currently played often comes close to asking them to act like men, and not just men, but a certain kind of man: a white male, scorekeeper who judges success by whether people people want to talk to him more than the other guy when he enters a room (Qaz's comment).
    Not for a second do I accept that my comment means that the skills required to do science are inherently male skills. (I know, that's not exactly what you said).
    I do think that many of the skills required to succeed at the science game the way it is currently played are more likely to be a function of male socialization (note, I am quite ambivalent about whether male skills are inherently male -- i.e. a product of biology or socialization, so I'm not going to voice an opinion on that). I don't think that has anything to do with what produces the best scientific outcomes, but instead just reflects the fact that people in power design the system so that the skills required to play the game are the skills they have. And, throughout all of history, it is the white men who have held the power in science.
    Ignoring gender in this discussion ignores the systemic differences in effect of the discussion on men & women.
    (and, to cite an example, Qaz's "will people talk to you more than the other guy" eeked me out. At first, I thought, 'cause women don't play this game. But, I realized that it's actually more complicated than that. It's not that women don't want to play a status game as well, but that the rules that govern their status are not as directly related to their perceived professional productivity. I can guarantee that many amazing women scientists are routinely ignored in cocktail parties. Because, you see, everyone who walks into the room will assume that they are a spouse. I first noted this when graduate students would routinely introduce themselves to my husband, while not paying any attention to me. And, my husband was a scientific spouse, irrelevant to their status mongering).

  • Luigi says:

    You have basically one shot at your career.

    I don't think this is true. I know of a number of cases where people have had to back up and start over. And have ended up very happy with successful scientific careers.

    OK, right. Let me clarify, because I know my word is gospel around here and thousands of readers are likely sweatily parsing my advice to ensure they do the right thing...
    By "You have basically one shot at your career", I don't mean you can't recover and ultimately cross the finish line (whatever that may be). What I mean is: "It's easier to investigate whether a position is right for you ahead of time than it is to build a time machine later in an effort to get that chunk of your life back."
    As a grad student, I made a couple choices that valued lifestyle over career*, and got suckered into a first postdoc with a charming new assistant prof who turned out to be a sociopath**. As a result, I didn't finish grad school until I was 31, didn't start my first faculty position until 36, and definitely missed out on some juicy opportunities. But now at 41 I am considered relatively successful in a very competitive field and on the verge of full professor (my dept head, assoc. dept head, and dean have all told me to apply for full prof this year) at a major research university with a good program and definite perks. So I've done OK. Caught up, at least. And if I, a screw off with apparently nothing better to do than spout off in this blog, can do it, then I think many can.
    So yea, you can recover. But my advice is to avoid being in a position where you need to.
    * I don't regret these choices at all. In fact, now when I talk about where I've lived & had a chance to do, most colleagues are envious.
    ** I mean this in the clinical sense. Really. The old term was 'Psychopath'. Charming and smart, but with an abusive personality, no empathy, incredible ambition...
    *** I love footnotes.

  • qaz says:

    Neurolover #57 - Please notice that I said "do people turn away from you to talk to someone else or away from someone else to talk to you?" I did not say "the other guy". This is because this is a phenomenon of rank in general. There are queens who walk in a room and everyone readjusts around them, just as there are kings. Believe me, no one f*cked with Elanor of Acquitaine any more than they did with Henry II. Just as there are men who chase CNS publications and run large labs, there are women who do as well. Some of them are wonderful mentors, some of them are sociopaths.

  • becca says:

    "So by the time you are getting overtly chewed out I might hazard a guess that the subtle and unsubtle hints have been ignored/missed."
    True. But different people communicate subtle and unsubtle hints differently (some of that is roughly correlated with gender, a huge amount is cultural, and it's all very interesting but usually only something you realize *after* you've missed something).
    DM- I'm pretty much on the same page with neurolover on the association between gender and scientific games(wo)manship.
    I also wonder whether gender affects when mentors (and others) are likely to perceive a trainee as marginal on competency in these areas.
    Obviously, one possible solution work-around is to get along with everybody and play the game well (i.e. never be marginal). Seems like a good thing to shoot for to me!
    But actually getting there requires a steeper uphill battle for some than others. That, combined with the probably variability in the intensity of perceived pressure on men and women to "get along", makes this a very tricky area for mentoring (particularly but not exclusively in senior-male to junior-female mentoring).
    "'Douchebag', by my practical definition, may not actually mean someone who is a dickwad. He/she may actually be a very nice well-meaning person. It doesn't matter."
    Whoa. Deja vou!
    ("trust your instincts. By that, I mean judge people based on how they treat you, not based on hypothetical models of how people behave." - http://notofgeneralinterest.blogspot.com/2009/05/lessons-for-girls-trust-your-instincts.html)

  • CC says:

    Why don't I ever hear about men being chastised by more senior scientists for not having 'the right attitude'? It must happen from time to time.
    Because men don't come back to the lab, burst into tears and tell everyone what happened to them, that's why.

  • Arc says:

    I wonder whether some of those who have this CNS paper or bust attitude are the purists...who think research shouldd be basic basic, just for knoeledge only, & only faculty positions in 'pure' depts like Molecular Genetics or Biochemistry are worth it. I know legions off scientists with TT faculty positions & NIH funding who have 0 papers in CNS, mostly in JCI, Lab Invest, AJP, Circulation etc. In fact medically-oriented topics, like addiction research or anti-inflammation have pretty good chance of getting funded if high-quality. OK, usually then one has to apply to 'less prestigious' depts, like Pharmacology or Anatomy or clinical depts but hey, they are more immediately relevant to health than figuring out yet another step in some signal transduction pathway.

  • juniorprof says:

    OK, usually then one has to apply to 'less prestigious' depts, like Pharmacology or Anatomy or clinical depts but hey
    Pharmacology, less prestigious? How dare you!!!!

  • whimple says:

    Those departments aren't less prestigious, they are less self-righteous.

  • Anonymous says:

    DM@#33But if one is interested in scientific questions, my major point stands. That a career is best served by making peace with the system as it is. Not insisting on playing the big-ticket research-infrastructure game from day one. Not insisting on a job location where things that one does not have or cannot immediately do are the threshold. There are many ways to have a satisfying career that (in my direct experience*) are not immediately obvious to the GlamorMagLab trainee.
    So you're saying, the key to career satisfaction (which I suppose is from personal experience?) is to just learn to settle for something less and lower one's expecations (even though said expecations were not unreasonable to begin with).

  • George says:

    Maybe more useful advice, to many people who are ill-served by academic PIs, would be tips on How To Spot A Douchebag, and how to get out quickly without inflicting too much damage to one's own rep.
    Absolutely. For all the talk about CNS publications, grant funding or not...the bottom line is - no matter how good you are as a scientist, who you work for will make or break your career. The PI controls EVERYTHING about the postdoc's career. Everything.
    This is entirely consistent with what I am saying and in fact I am extending it to entire sub-circles within science. If that whole highly competitive, scooping, back-biting, CNS-or-nothing way of doing science is not for you, get out. There are other satisfying pathways.
    Other satisfying pathways to what? A science career? How can you win if you leave the game?

  • pinus says:

    There is more to the science game than CNS publications. In fact, if you check out CRISP, you will see that most people who have grants, don't publish there. You can call them relics, or people who politic properly...but they might just be people who do solid work who don't want to run with the bulls. My grad school advisor would have called it 'working class' science.

  • msphd says:

    Continues to be an interesting discussion. Discouraging, and yes quite a bit sexist, but interesting nonetheless.
    re: the question about whether high-impact papers are expected and required, check out this link and scroll down to the part about identifying qualified faculty candidates. It says, and I quote:
    Is it appropriate and/or expected to identify potential specific new faculty candidates by name and with a brief description of credentials?
    Specific identities are not appropriate, but you should describe the characteristics of the desired applicant pool—high-impact publications, prestigious awards, etc.
    This from NIH themselves. Now you could argue that "high-impact" does not mean CNS, but I think it probably does.

  • NewPostdoc says:

    There is more to the science game than CNS publications. In fact, if you check out CRISP, you will see that most people who have grants, don't publish there.
    Actually, for current postdocs, it would be relevant to know when these "most people" got their faculty jobs... Staying in science is one thing, getting a job (now) is another (as also emphasized in comments to the recent DrugMonkey post about having to love science - or not - in order to succeed). Is there any solid data out there on the average publication record of current faculty hires? (it would obviously be field and institution-type dependent...)
    A related question to DrugMonkey. Your advice is - if you can't strive in a very competitive climate, maybe because you're not so good at the political games, or you don't like the paranoid secrecy, or whatever, then try a different path/change fields etc. But most people get into their field or subfield at a time when they have no clue about what is super-political and what is not, whether you need a CNS paper to get a job years later or not... Usually out of a combination of personal interests and chance meetings with faculty, I would assume. And if you like the science in the field and you manage to make it out of grad school sane and you're still interested in the questions you started tackling - I would guess it's often the case, as the more you know about a topic, the more interesting it gets (or maybe it's just me) - then you want to stay in the general same field.
    But perhaps at some point you realize some extra-science aspects of it are not for you - even though you enjoy the scientific questions a hell of a lot... It sounds like this could be MsPhD's situation in fact... So what do you do? Not so easy as it sounds I would say. Any practical recommendations?

  • Anonymous says:

    I read this post and was puzzled because I fail to understand the big hoopla being made out of MsPhD's post. She was sharing a childhood experience. I fail to see why the authors of this blog should find it such a big deal.

  • George says:

    There is more to the science game than CNS publications. In fact, if you check out CRISP, you will see that most people who have grants, don't publish there. You can call them relics, or people who politic properly...but they might just be people who do solid work who don't want to run with the bulls. My grad school advisor would have called it 'working class' science.
    Hey I would LOVE to fit into this mold, to not have to publish in CNS in order to get a job, to be "only" working class rather than having to be a superstar all. But the reality these days is that unless you are a superstar, you will not get hired UNLESS you are extremely good at politicking or have political capital such as through your famous advisor or your famous lab.

  • Arc says:

    OK, usually then one has to apply to 'less prestigious' depts, like Pharmacology or Anatomy or clinical depts but hey
    Pharmacology, less prestigious? How dare you!!!!
    The reason I put the less prestigious in quotes is b/c I don't think for a moment they are less prestigious, but the CNS-heads do think so, they'd consider research on, say, drug interactions or designing novel delivery systems to be less scientifically pure than say, regulation of NF-kappaB. How many times have I heard molecular biologists disparagingly speak of clinical research. (A colleague of mine once commented the purest of molecular biologists regards gene expression as an end in itself! However, my point was a lot of scietists have gotten funded without any CNS paper. Many exciting molecular discoveries haven't yielded any health benefits (RNAi/Z-DNA/transposition to name a few).
    Look, the three biggest cancer drugs of recent years: Gleevec: a kinase inhibitor; Herceptin: an EGFR antibody, Rituxan: a CD20 antibody, none of them required too complex molecular genetics knowledge, but rather designed drugs on rather basic biochemical principles using standard recombinant DNA techniques.

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