Thursday, May 10, 2007

Confidence, joining a lab and breaking a cycle...

Propter Doc had a visitor to her lab, a potential post-doc looking to join the lab. From the sound (or should I say read) of it, the visitor is clueless, a deer in the headlights. As Propter Doc discusses asking the right questions to the right people is key in figuring out if a lab is right for you. The other part of the equation is trusting yourself (i.e. having the confidence) not to go with the stellar name but rather what is the best place for you not just scientifically but also as a person. As PD puts it:
"And make damn sure before you turn up to an interview that you’ve removed from your little brain any nonsense about being ‘grateful for the opportunity to work with professor X/happy just to get a postdoc’. That’s just bullshit, and a pretty quick route to a very unhappy postdoc."

This of course is easier said than done. What if you have had a poor graduate school advisor who slowly eats away at your confidence? An advisor who makes your feel like you barely are getting by and are not working hard enough? How can said person really go into an interview for a post-doc position without feeling grateful for the opportunity? These are the ones who will get stuck in similar situations for their post-doctoral training.

In theory, thesis committees are supposed to protect against such advisors but in practice this doesn't happen nearly enough. There is no real incentive in the system for committee members to intervene other than being good people. In many respects, the system at research universities actually encourages them not to. If there is a problem, it takes effort to do something about it and time. Most PIs are exceptionally busy people. Most of them are not spending the time they should to be great mentors for their own students & post-docs and definitely the time to be good teachers in the classroom. Professors have to be writing grants, papers to get grants, dealing with university administrative duties along with duties for the general scientific community and giving talks. Add having a family on top of that and you do not have a situation where stepping up on behalf of a student in a bad but not horrible situation isn't easy to do.

How do you get around this? At the end of the day it will require money whether it is lessening the need to publish or perish, hiring faculty for different purposes, training PIs to be good mentors/teachers (& rewarding those that are). In addition though it will also require a change in the culture of science. Selecting for hard workers has to go. This encourages those most willing to endure long hours (not necessarily producing anything more with those extra hours) who don't have as much of a life outside of lab. Those are not people who will make good mentors for most people in graduate school. You would be amazed how many hours in lab are just wasted because the incentive is to "work hard" as measured by hours spent in lab.

Another change that must occur is that mentorship and teaching have to be greater components of getting tenure at research universities. They are places of higher learning. If said scientist doesn't want to teach & mentor then they shouldn't be professors at such places. Go to a research institute. Work at a company. Unfortunately, top tier research universities despite being school are all about churning out research to draw in grants. Their isn't a selection against poor mentors and teachers. You have enough of them, it isn't like graduate students really have a choice then on only joining labs with good PIs. The climate is to encourage students to join "hot" labs doing "exciting" science-the prestigious labs. Basically students get pushed into situations where they basically get used to generate data to keep these top labs going which brings money to the university.

Enough make it through the system, who are very grateful and drink the Kool-Aid to keep the cycle going. Graduate students and post-docs will have to stand up more and let it be known joining a lab has to be more than just the science.

More on choosing a lab:
Me
Natural Scientist

5 comments:

Jenny F. Scientist said...

"a poor graduate school advisor who slowly eats away at your confidence? An advisor who makes your feel like you barely are getting by and are not working hard enough"
"incentive is to 'work hard' as measured by hours spent in lab"
"Their isn't a selection against poor mentors and teachers."

Have you perhaps met my advisor???? (As my friends say: the same problems everywhere, because the sane ones are selected against). I must say I agree entirely with you, but alas, I discovered it all by bitter experience!

Kate said...

"Most PIs are exceptionally busy people. Most of them are not spending the time they should to be great mentors for their own students & post-docs and definitely the time to be good teachers in the classroom."

how very true. and you hit the issue on the head - if there's no incentive to be a good educator, mentor, committee member, or science advocate/communicator in the public sphere, why stretch your already-packed schedule?

what we need is a revamped system that rewards those roles. sadly you're quite right that scientific survival can't be based soley on publish-or-perish anymore - our world has become MUCH too flat, and science has assumed too many dynamic roles in society, for that to be remotely appropriate anymore.

which, from a lowly grad student's perspective, makes fighting for a tenure-track position even more daunting.

sigh.

PonderingFool said...

It is tough. We are asking a lot out of professors. We expect them to be talented scientists, managers, grant writers, editors, teachers, mentors, communicators to the general populace, administrators, peer reviewers, etc. The only training they really get is to be a scientist. A little with regards to editing but is not their primary training. Those are a lot of skills. Ideally there should be a greater division of labor. How many professors really can do it all? Given the high number of PhDs really we should be able to divide things up better. Some people would happily serve as research scientists for awhile. Others teaching, etc. The scary thing is more and more is being pushed onto faculty members and in turn on those in their labs. Compared to 10-15 years ago,the lab I am now handles far more of the ordering and finding the best prices for goods. Journals have cut back and those burdens have been placed on those submitting papers. It is not a healthy situation.

Kate said...

not healthy, but hard to change midstream. especially when you're dealing with the ingrained and entrenched world of science.

so i imagine that the changes will have to filter down from the top, like academic deans and program chairs. it will be an uphill battle, not because people aren't willing to adapt but because i don't think (and this might be an overreaching generalization, but i'm going with it) that most deans/chairs got to their current position by anything less than a stellar publication record, productive lab, and consistent funding.

seeing the issues you mention, like communication/teaching/etc, will require a lot of people to step back and recognize where science is, where it needs to go, and what type(s) of scientists will get it there...and then be unafraid to change the way things are done.

PonderingFool said...

so i imagine that the changes will have to filter down from the top, like academic deans and program chairs. it will be an uphill battle, not because people aren't willing to adapt but because i don't think (and this might be an overreaching generalization, but i'm going with it) that most deans/chairs got to their current position by anything less than a stellar publication record, productive lab, and consistent funding.
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I actually think the change will have to come from the bottom. Those on the top are those that have been positively selected for in the system. They are the scientists we became least fed up with it all. Their mindset on average is very different from the general scientific population. They don't make the same rational economic decisions as most people. If they did, they wouldn't be doing what they are doing (neither would any of us in the sciences really).

The thing is the entire system works because grad students and post-docs are willing to put up with it. We organized to oppose it, the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards. The problem is organizing people who are independent and each thinking he/she might be one who makes it. Throw on top of that the type of organizing being done by the current groups trying will do more harm than good IMHO.