Back when I was starting in my faculty position and failing to get grants funded and papers accepted, I had a tendency to blame the system. “How could they not SEE how brilliant my ideas are and how IMPORTANT my findings are? The system must be broken!” And I don’t blame myself for doing so, because up to that point everything I’d done had validated those claims. I had great publications, nice grants as a trainee, I got a job at a fancy school, so how could I not be brilliant? That’s right. I considered myself that special snowflake. However, one of the most important pieces of advice I got from one of my senior colleagues who was acting as an informal mentor was this: Maybe the system isn’t perfect, or fair. Maybe there’s bias in the review process. But complaining about it and blaming the system is NOT going to get you papers accepted, your grants funded or you tenure. What you need to do is go back, and try harder. Make the next grant proposal better, the next paper revision more interesting. But only by trying harder are you going to make it through this. And she was right.
And the hard part is, that after every grant you send or paper you submit, you feel like you DID try hard, and that it couldn’t be better. But in truth, it can always be better. No proposal or paper is perfect. No scientist is super special. And I agree, it does suck, because this results in a lot of wasted effort. But the important lesson is, it’s OK to vent by complaining and feeling indignant, you may have good reason to do so, but unless you keep trying, and trying harder, no amount of self-righteousness is going to get you anywhere.
So, to paraphrase James Brown, “what you gonna play now? I don’t know but what’s it ever I play, it’s got to be Funky!”
So…make it funky!
I was just thinking about an interesting post by Hope Jahren about what it means to have tenure. I agree with her in that I think that the point of tenure is not really to enable academic freedom in the classical sense (I mean really, how many of us have academic ideas SO controversial that we risk being shut down by the university?), but rather to enable us academics to do things that we normally wouldn’t and to function as agents for real change. That is, since having tenure I’ve definitely felt encouraged to get involved in all sorts of different new directions and participate in aspects of the university which I wouldn’t have before. But here I think is my key divergence with her, in that I never felt I couldn’t participate in these new endeavors because I felt they wouldn’t be valued by my peers, or that I’d be negatively judged for this, but rather I simply didn’t have the time. When I started my faculty job I was given very clear expectations of what I needed to accomplish by a given time frame in order to get tenure. Add to this having two kids and a major illness, there really wasn’t time for much else if I were to meet these milestones. So I passed up these opportunities. But I never felt silenced, like I couldn’t speak my mind or call bullshit when I saw it. And I often did and still do. Maybe once I kept silent when I should have said something, even if me saying it would’ve been pointless anyway. But maybe I happen to have a fairly congenial department and very supportive chair, I don’t know, this probably makes a big difference.
In any case, tenure doesn’t really take away the pressure to perform. I still need to publish and get grants if I want to keep my lab running and my peeps employed. But on the other hand, we have gone in riskier new directions with our research and I’ve been encouraging my peeps to really stretch into new directions with higher payoff. There’s still the risk these things won’t pay off, but somehow not having tenure hanging over your head makes these risks a little more palatable. As I’ve said, having a little breathing room has also allowed me to experiment more with my teaching and to become involved with parts of the university that I had never had contact with for causes that are important to me. Maybe I’ll write more about these efforts some day. So am I working less hard? No way! I’m working more. Am I less stressed? Definitely, and I’m having a lot more fun.
Finally, I diverge with Hope Jahren in one more important thing. Getting tenure IS a big deal, and is a result of a lot of hard work and if you get it, you should be damn proud. WHen I found out I got tenure, damn right I told everyone, if they wanted to diminish this or weren’t impressed, that’s their problem, not mine. Had I not been so sick at the time, I’d have thrown a huge party, because, why the fuck not.
On Sunday, while my kids and I were watching football, this advertisement came on TV from Autism Speaks:
It’s a public service announcement featuring singer Toni Braxton and her autistic son, and focuses on the long odds of Toni Braxton becoming a pop star vs the much higher odds of her having a kid with autism. As the somewhat spooky music and voiceover detailing Toni Braxton’s career progressed (her odds of becoming a pop star were one in a million…) I could see both my kids getting nervous:
“Dad, what happened to her?? Did she DIE?!?!”
I told them that as far as I knew she was still alive.
“Then why is the music spooky”
“I’m not sure.”
Finally when the punchline came, saying the odds of having a son with autism were much higher than the odds of Toni Braxton becoming a pop star:
“Dad? Did her son die then?!?”
“No, it says he has Autism.”
“Like my friend from school!?!?”
“Is my friend going to die!?! But he’s so NICE!!”
And that’s the problem. From the tone of the ad it makes it seem that this singer and her son’s lives are pretty much over, the rest will be struggling and just getting by. We clearly know that’s not the case, there’s more than a million people with autism going on with their lives. Why are they casting these what I imagine are well meaning ads with such a tragic, dehumanizing rhetoric?
Recently we discussed whether publications should be required before a grad student earns a PhD. While opinions varied, I think there was consensus that the process of writing a paper and carrying through the review and revision process is a valuable lesson important for an academic career. That being said, another way to get exposed to this process is from the other end, as a reviewer. Although I’d had the experience of publishing several papers as a grad student and postdoc, it wasn’t until midway thorough my postdoc career that my advisor asked me to help her review a manuscript she was reviewing for a journal. I remember first being surprised that I was asked to do this, but more so what I remember is writing an extremely harsh and detailed review of the paper. I’m not sure why, maybe because I felt I had prove myself to my advisor or something silly like that. And I remember her saying, “wow this is way harsher than I would’ve written”. I don’t know if she then tempered my review or sent it as is. But in general I think this is a common thing, that trainees tend to feel like they have to be extremely harsh on papers they review, and not necessarily to the benefit of the paper. One thing about reviewing a paper is learning to identify the critical flaws and strengths, and learning to exclude what you think they should have done just because, well you just would have done it differently. That’s why I pretty much never hand off papers I’ve been asked to review to my trainees, because I feel it would do a disservice to the review process. I think for the most part journals are OK with PIs asking trainees to help with the reviews, they just ask you to identify the trainees in your review, but I still don’t do it. And recently some lab folks have been asking me why I never ask them to help with paper reviews. But I still don’t, despite me knowing that this is also a potential opportunity for them. I guess I could ask them to write a review and then compare it to mine, and sit with the trainee and show them what’s strong and what’s not, but that would be in an ideal world where nobody is busy as hell. How about you, do you let your trainees review papers for you? Does your PI ask you to help with the reviews?
Recently I came across this video. It is for a toy called Goldie Blocks, which is marketed as “engineering toys for girls”. The video is quite clever it shows these two girls taking all their princess and ‘girly’ toys and creating a gigantic Rube Goldberg style contraption that takes over the whole house. The set of toys are supposed to be these contraption building kits where you set up a bunch of wheels and link them with gears and belts, and their shtick is that toys marketed for boys are often much funner than those marketed for girls and that toys marketed for girls assume girls aren’t interested in science and engineering type things. So far so good. However when I looked at their site I was totally taken aback that the whole design, it is totally a girly toy. From the purple and pink colors, rounded edges, cutesy fonts and all the little cutesy animals thrown in. And the toy, in all honesty looks kind of, well, lame. It’s basically pink Tinkertoys with a belt that can connect the wheels. My daughter would get bored in about 30 seconds. If they go through the trouble of making a point of encouraging girls to think about engineering and science why come up with this frilly piece of crap? It’s like saying, “girls, it’s ok if you play with boy toys, but only with these dumbed down versions with pretty purple colors”. Why gender code the toys at all? I mean my daughter is perfectly happy playing with standard Lego sets, Snap Circuits and Minecraft. All cool toys and games with huge engineering potential that are not gender coded and that both boys and girls could enjoy. What do you think? Do you think these Goldie Blox undermine their own message?
“Here’s my poster for the Society for Neuroscience Meeting!”
“Looks nice, but where’s the rest of your data?!?”
“I chose not to include it, you don’t want to give away the whole package, otherwise nobody is going to read the paper.”
“Because everyone who could possibly see your paper will be at the meeting and at your poster?”
“Yea, potential reviewers will not get excited about it because they will have already seen it.”
Oy. I don’t know where that particular misconception arose, but it really took me by surprise. And I think that it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a poster is for. First off, it is not a press release, or pre publication. Rather it is a chance to present your work and get your colleagues excited about it. A chance for you to stand by your work and make it shine, to show others why you think what you do is cool. A poster is also a chance to get feedback on your work from your colleagues, the more data you show, the better the feedback. It gives you a chance to try and pitch your story in different ways so that you can find the most efficient, clear and logical way to get your point across. To see what works and what doesn’t. And every time you give your little spiel to someone else, you get a little better at telling it, so that when you get home and start writing your paper, you’ve got your work cut out for you. So don’t skimp on your posters, make them good, and you’ll get much better returns!
Here’s a quick poll for you readers who are in academia or have been. In your university, how much work does a PhD student need to do before he or she is allowed to graduate? Do you need a set number of papers, do they have to be published or is a bunch of unpublishable data sufficient? Is this something fixed or is it determined on an ad hoc basis? Should there be a set criteria for number of publications? Whatever you can eke out in five years? Do you agree or disagree with your institutions policy? Please mention what stage you are in your career in your comments.
Now, órale, discuss…