Thinking about events during the last two weeks

Feb 19 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Wow, the 2 weeks at the Guest Bloggue are almost up! Incredible how fast time flies. I'm still amazed that I was able to make it, and with new posts on most days! Indeed, it is possible for me to stick to a resolution and come through (if only I could apply this to work).

This entry will probably be all over the place, kinda like my brain most days, hehe.

I'm enjoying the long weekend. Yesterday I was able to sleep until almost 11am. I hadn't been able to enjoy that for the longest time. My apartment is quiet, but faces the street and it's a somewhat busy street. I get startled and awake pretty easily. I'm mostly recovered, and indeed, good rest does seem to shorten a cold (and its severity).

My boss did a bit of k3rning this week, not directed towards me (though I did give him the look of disapproval and called his name ... right after the comment in an annoyed voice). I won't go into the details, but I do have to say that I'm amazed (not in a good way) and shocked how some people get to find mates and have offspring even when their priorities are obviously to work, work, work and only have fun when things are work related. Sheesh.

Said situation and a conversation with a talented, yet overworked postdoc from another institution, has me thinking that I did the right thing by staying out of the TT. My postdoc friend has been in her new lab for less than 6 months. She works at least 10 hours every day of the week, doesn't take overly generous breaks, yet her PI (also a woman, and married) is making her life miserable by saying that she can't possibly survive and thrive in academia unless she works at least 12 hours every day. My friend recently got engaged, and she's barely done any planning (obviously not during lab time) because her boss says that she shouldn't be planning a wedding and having a life (her actual words) when there is science to be done and illnesses to cure (sounds familiar?? Maybe her PI was trained by K3rn). I sent along a copy of the K3rn piece to her and encouraged her to start looking into other options if she's really interested in staying in academia, because it would be a disservice to her to continue under her boss's thumb, unless she's willing to confront the boss and take on whatever comes her way.

I shared with her the story of how I became a staff scientist, and my reasons for it, related to how cut-throat I perceive the academic life to be. My friend wants to start a family in a couple of years, yet her PI doesn't seem to be very accepting or approving of this. She mentioned that people that work near her lab have seen how the PI treats postdocs and they don't approve ... yet no one has (and I'm sure no one will) report the PI, even when she's clearly violated a few of the bylaws that protect workers, especially about time off and/or family leave. That got me thinking that as far as I can tell, people know when a PI (or boss in any other discipline) is an ogre, yet no one says anything to prospective students, techs, postdocs or other lab personnel. Why is that? I remember that a couple of weeks after finishing my postdoc, a few of my former (female) labmates and I got together for drinks. Two of the most recent grads from postdoc lab gave me big hugs and congratulated me on getting out. They said that they thought the lab would break my spirit because I was so happy and outgoing, yet the boss was on the quiet side, and pretty much would stay put and let me fall flat on my face, only to say later that I never sought his insight. I was shocked at their admission ... and now that my friend says that she's having a hell of an experience, it got me thinking that there is something wrong with all of us when we keep quiet while witnessing how a potentially horrible PI continues to get (and fire) people in their lab, only to have the same complains about everyone.  To me the the problem is certainly not the people, but the PI. What can we do to prevent talented people from getting into said labs and work under people that are above and beyond k3rn? Am I alone in thinking that this type of behaviour from a supposed mentor is plain and simple abuse/bullying? What can universities do to protect their students and postdocs? I'm guessing that the system might take care of said PIs when they fail to maintain people for extended periods of time, which in turn reflects bad on them, and limits the recommendations they may get from previous (and happy) trainees. But do students and postdoc have to suffer for years until the behaviour corrects itself (more or less) by the rules of the tenure system? I'm at a loss for words here.

All that brings me to answer a question someone posted on the my blog. A commenter asked why I'd started blogging. The 'about' section of my blog used to say that I wanted the blog to be a place where I could write down my thoughts on everything grad school related, but that I also wanted it to be a window into the life of a grad student (later postdoc) and that I'd share my struggles because as much as I thought they were unique, I was sure I wasn't alone (something I've come to see a lot in the comments, tweets and emails I get on my entry on failing the qualifying exam).

Then last week I was reading one of the my fave blogs, and Joanna's mom said this about her sharing some rather personal/painful stuff with her readers, even when she wasn't sure:

"It seems to me that being authentic is being brave enough or just candid enough to be honest about what you are experiencing or who you are, whether it is popular are not. A person gives a gift to other people when they say, 'This is what happened to me or this is how I truly feel, no matter what the popular belief is about what I should feel.' Whenever you are honest, you are speaking for a thousand silent people who don't have the voice to say what they really feel or are really experiencing. So, if you ever talk about [the thing you went through], you will touch a million hearts. Because you are speaking for more than just yourself. You are never alone in what you are feeling." (emphasis added).

That insight from Joanna's mom captures exactly why I started blogging. Because the journey in higher ed is beautiful, but also painful, and frustrating. Because there are people out there with horrible bosses, or painful projects, or family problems, or no money, or <insert your situation here> that feel all alone, and all it takes is one person, one experience, one share to help them a bit, to make them feel understood, and that someone out there 'gets' them. That's my reason to blog. I may be bitter, I may be sad, I may be happy .... but it is my experience, and hopefully seeing that someone out there has gone (and survived, or overcome) through something similar can give you a bit of hope in moving forward, or perhaps changing course.


6 responses so far

  • BikeMonkey says:

    In many cases the prospective trainee is told, all right. But they are so starstruck and egotistical that they never imagine it will happen to them. They are special. Those n-th years w/o a paper must just be the losers who couldn't hack the pace...

    • 27andaphd says:

      Interesting. I'd like to think that I'm special, not special as in "I'll do kick ass research so that the boss will get a Nobel Prize" but more in the sense that I have a nice personality and respond well to encouragement and enthusiasm. My friend here was told by no one, the people in nearby labs have admitted they would have told her, but were afraid. I'm sure she would have taken the word of caution much like I would have had all the disgruntled female postdocs and students in my postdoc lab had said a thing about the lack of enthusiasm and response from the boss. Not everyone is created equal, and there are some of us who would gladly listen and not make the mistake of going into labs that will (or have) crushed our souls.

  • Yael says:

    Yeah, I have warned people off certain PIs, but naive people are always convinced that they are the special snowflake. Ditto for projects that won't work or PIs that keep putting postdocs/students on things that won't work and let these people burn out. Some snowflakes keep thinking that they are The One that will publish that C/N/S paper. Those people deserve what they get.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Indeed, being naive is certainly not always a good thing, especially when making a huge leap like going to a lab with a totally different personality, project and technique. I wish I'd been warned about the lack of progress (except in one of the branches in the lab, which I was obviously not working on) and how people were stalled by the boss.

      I don't believe that just because someone is confident they will do great things, and end up with a crappy boss/project/labmates, deserve what they get. I certainly didn't and neither does my talented friend.

  • Scicurious says:

    What troubles me is that yes, we'll warn students going in that a PI is death on wheels. But why doesn't anyone at the PI's level do anything to help the students already in the trap? I think this is a lot of PI's valuing intellectual independence, the idea that they all run their labs the way that's best for them. It's true that we shouldn't impinge on research independence, but when students are having nervous breakdowns, post-docs are being fired for not working 12 hour days, and people's careers are being negatively impacted by PI stonewalling, will no one step in?

    • 27andaphd says:

      Exactly!!! I have known a PI or two that step in and sometimes co-mentor someone, or in the case of being fired, offers employment to said trainee. But it is troublesome that no one in the spheres of powers steps in, especially if the behaviour keeps repeating itself, regardless of how dedicated the trainee is. My only guess is that PIs probably have a lot to lose (starting by alienating themselves from the department, being known as troublemakers, or whatever) if they step in, and maybe, if they're early enough in their career, it would be a risky move. It is definitely not an excuse, especially for more senior PIs that have nothing to lose.