Tough love

I got tough-love comments only about twice in my postgraduate academic training prior to becoming a PI.

Once was from a friend in a far different graduate program when I was in the depths of writing my dissertation. This one is in my top 5 life touch-stone conversations I would guess. Basically it boiled down to "If you find all of this so unpleasant, get the hell off your ass and do something else. I mean seriously, wtf is wrong with you?"

The second tough-love convo came from a mentor who had just seriously pulled the rug out from under me and I had disappeared (essentially) from work for several weeks. That one was more----nuanced in effect on me. But in the end s/he was right. Shitty things happen but dude, it's your fricken career and your fricken life. So sack up and get back to work.

On reflection, I didn't have anywhere near enough people doing this to me throughout my career. Two was not by any means as many as I could have benefitted from.

As a mentor, I rarely start these conversations. I doubt I've had a trainee that doesn't get at least one such conversation from me that could qualify, but I find them unpleasant and avoid them.

No doubt just as my mentors did.

They are hard conversations to initiate and hard ones to receive.

Even on the Internet from some anonymous blowhard.

17 responses so far

  • odyssey says:

    The need for tough love can extend well beyond postgraduate training.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Oh, I am not suggesting it doesn't!

  • dr24hours says:

    Tough love has to come from someone who you can assume has the "love" part (i.e., someone invested in you.). Thus, anonymous internet blowhards are not really capable of delivering such messages effectively.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    I only needed it once, when I was a grad student. My mentor told me, "You know, you're not the only smart person around. So stop acting like such an insufferable arrogant prick all the time." And it actually worked: I took it to heart and started acting decently.

    The funny thing is that some of the other faculty in the department were actually disappointed with the change. Because I used to be the dicke in departmental seminar who would just fucken savage the visiting speakers, which they apparently found very entertaining.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    But I never needed the "sacke uppe" talking to. In fact, once when I was a post-doc another faculty member came up to me at the department Christmas party having heard that my second long-fought attempt at achieving a difficult technical goal had just failed. He said to me, "I really don't think you should give up on this yet." I laughed in his face and said, "I wasn't even considering giving up, but thanks for the advice."

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes. I can see that really took the edge off your self-confidence PP.....

  • mytchondria says:

    Wait...when did CPP stop acting like an insufferable arrogant prick? Did I miss it?

    I LOVE GIVING THE TOUGH LOVE TALK and can't believe you avoid it. Seriously. Like, not in my psued 'I'm a ball buster' kind of way either. Conversely, I avoid conversations about the future of STEM funding and jobs in my talks with graduate students. They can read and don't need me hounding their arses.

    IME, the tough love talks come down to knowing who your students are and why they are into science. If you understand their motives and personalities well enough, you can figure out what ignites their passion and do all you can to drive it when data and life make them slump. I let them stew a bit, because often the angst and dispair about a project or life in science are real, but I never let it go on for more than a couple days.

    I would argue that worse than the model of the in your life PI, and the reluctant DM I don't like giving the tough love conversation are the PIs like I had in grad school. She loved everyone so, so much while they rotated and then once you were in the lab she either loved you or ignored you. But she never knew any of us. I meet with her now at conferences and such and she has that look of a sad parent who knew she should have done better by me and a lot of people.

  • jim says:

    Anonymous internet blowhard here. I get what you're saying, but I still detect a bit of...smug condescension. Your Republican is showing. "Sacking up" is a whole lot easier when you have privileges, like I dunno, a thriving job market, affordable housing, some semblance of retirement security, limited debt load. In short, it's easier to 'take charge' and 'make moves' when there are opportunities available, and you have the resources to take advantage of them. Saying you 'sacked up' in what, the late 90s/early 00s is a much different 'sacking' than doing it today.

    Personally, I 'sacked up' already. I got PhD'd in 2008, nobody was taking anything for granted then, IIRC. I took a postdoc as there were few other options (you might remember the job market being uhhhhhhh difficult then) but I was looking at the exit the whole time. I learned to code while riding out the storm, and now I'm currently a happily employed data scientist, feverishly trying to make up for lost wages. Doesn't mean I don't like to come on the internet and anonymously blowhard on those who try to accuse my late GenX/Millenial generation of being entitled. We're well aware of how rough it is out there, maybe even a bit more than you are?

  • MoBio says:

    Interesting...several times I was 'strongly urged' to leave science entirely as it was clear 'I didn't have any interesting ideas' and 'had done nothing noteworthy'.

    As I remember it I was either in such a fog or so clueless that the words had very little effect. I trudged along...

    With hindsight I agree that--at least at the time--both charges were spot on.

  • mistressoftheanimals says:

    Best tough love I ever got:
    Do you want to be a scientist or do you want to do science?

    Thank you long ago MSc mentor.

  • rxnm says:

    CPP: "And it actually worked"

    Debatable.

    But big picture, the vociferous, angry disagreements that happen here or on twitter might always seem like they are making everyone just dig in in their position, but I think everyone gets a better picture of others' perspectives. In particular, that none of these groups (PIs, postdocs, grad students) are monolithic entities and no one's individual experiences generalize very well.

  • drugmonkey says:

    jim- note that my blog posts are not always about the same thing. In this case the "sack up" message was about getting as much work as possible done within an adverse work environment. Also to take steps to salvage my future career instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

    In short, it's easier to 'take charge' and 'make moves' when there are opportunities available, and you have the resources to take advantage of them.

    How the heck would you know a damn thing about my prospects and limitations when this particular event was happening to me? How would you know what resources I did or didn't have? Here's a hint, there is considerable more overlap in the broad distributions of these factors across the past 30+ years than the assessment of the central tendency that you are asserting would represent. Even assuming you are right about the latter.

    With hindsight I agree that--at least at the time--both charges were spot on.

    and look at the amazing shit you've been doing.... See, it is stories like these that, for me, entirely dismantle any confidence I might have that prior performance is such a great predictor of future performance. As CPP is always on about. Bad stuff happens during people's careers...as does unusually good stuff. It is simply not enough to review someone's CV to date to predict what is going to come from them in the future. The better predictor is that the person with the time and the grant money is going to do better than someone without the funding.

    Do you want to be a scientist or do you want to do science?

    My formulation of that is more along the lines of "Do you want to have a career doing science, or do you want to do [specific kind of] science? ".

    the vociferous, angry disagreements that happen here or on twitter might always seem like they are making everyone just dig in in their position, but I think everyone gets a better picture of others' perspectives. In particular, that none of these groups (PIs, postdocs, grad students) are monolithic entities and no one's individual experiences generalize very well.

    Absolutely. This is why I continually assert that the real value in this blog lies in the comments. They are certainly what I am here for.

  • Ben says:

    The best tough love talk I got was actually from a postdoc when I was a grad student. He said; "Take a look at all these people around you [meaning the very talented grad students and postdocs in a large, very good neuroscience program]. Most of them aren't getting jobs. What makes you think you're special?" I worked a lot harder to stand out after that.

  • Ben says:

    ... and my students and postdocs have all heard me say that.

  • Dave says:

    Not sure I can point to one specific 'tough love' moment, rather several experiences during my training that helped me a lot. I have always had two major flaws. The first is that like most of us probably do, I tend to take experimental results personally, and it was extreme when I was a graduate student. It was particularly rough then because ALL of my results were negative, and I mean all of them. It was during this period that I learnt from my two main advisers how to obtain some perspective, 'sack-up' and, most importantly, how to deal with and publish data that you might think suck but others might find informative.

    My other flaw is the need for experimental perfection/cleanness, which is one of those 'good but bad' things that can really, really hurt productivity. During my post-doc, my boss sat me down and gave me a firm talking to along the lines of 'if you wanna make it, you better change the way you do things in terms of getting papers out'. I needed it then at the exact moment that it came.

  • becca says:

    "Wait...when did CPP stop acting like an insufferable arrogant prick? Did I miss it? "
    Hey, I'm not one to defend CPP, but if we grade on a curve scaled to one's *personal* growth, some of us are actually very Carebear Teaparty. Just sayin'.

    Do you want to be a scientist or do you want to do science?

    My formulation of that is more along the lines of "Do you want to have a career doing science, or do you want to do [specific kind of] science? ".
    Huh. That's pretty much the opposite of the implied meaning I got out of the original.

  • Ola says:

    I'm unfamiliar with the phrase "sack up", but assume it to be derivative of "grow a pair", as in testicles, ball sack, etc. I shall be using it a lot in my tough love convo's from now on, maybe even in the form "ball-sack up".

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