I can’t stand it

I’ve been trying to avoid ranting and bitching and so on lately because I know that some people are seeing my blog for the first time and I don’t want to scare them off (new people:  nothing to see here, please go read these relatively sane posts).


*huge intake of breath*



Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.  I feel much better now.

*By “people” I mean one specific person who is constantly doing this kind of thing in an effort to make things “better.”  Apparently, this person’s motto is, “If it’s not broken, we should fix it.”  For long time readers:  you will know this person as someone with a lot of lab drama surrounding them. 

Some suggestions

In my previous post, I pointed out that thesis advisers and degree programs should be providing training in aspects of being a scientist beyond benchwork. I also said I would provide ideas for how to do that.

How the degree program can help

First and foremost, let’s tell students early on that they need more than good “hands” to make it in the world of science. I agree that, after a certain period of time, this should become obvious to anyone with half a brain and any observational skills whatsoever. But, instead of waiting for students to figure it out on their own, why don’t we tell them right off the bat what reality is?

For first year students:

In my first year of grad school, I had classes on various scientific subjects. I also took one ethics class (although, to be honest, I’m not sure the program would have provided that had it not been required by NIH), and I was required to attend a lunchtime seminar series in which each of the faculty in the program presented their research to us. This was supposed to help us in choosing a lab and just give us an idea of the kind of research that was going on at our institution. Sometimes, these talks were very boring, but mostly they were useful.

I’d very much like to see another seminar series added to the roster.* The first seminar in the series should be Reality Check. The faculty should sit down with the students and tell them all of the dirty little secrets about science that all of us thought scientists were above until we actually started training to be scientists. Science is not a meritocracy. Fame matters. Quantity of publications matters. Who you know matters. Appearance matters. Gender matters. In short, right away students should be told, bluntly, that scientists are just like every other professionals in the world, that science is like any other profession in the world and you ignore that to your peril. Forget letting them figure it out on their own. Just come right out and say it. Give students the chance to start preparing for those aspects of science when they first start the program.

The rest of the seminar series would be about all of those aspects of science that aren’t research. Each could be led by faculty who are particularly good at that aspect. Get the Howard Hughes Investigator to talk to students about writing successful grant applications. Get the department chair to talk about networking. And so on.

For more senior students:

Give the students specific opportunities to practice some of these skills. Have formal dinners to practice networking skills (to make this have slightly more realism, have the dinner with faculty from a different department, that is, people that the students may not know very well). Require every student to invite a seminar speaker. Require every student to apply for some sort of fellowship (regardless of whether you think they are truly competitive for that fellowship; the idea is to give them some experience in applying for funding).

What PIs can do

When I was a waitress, in very nearly every job I had, I had to do what was called shadowing. When I first started, I was assigned to another waitress and had to follow her around. Then, after doing that a couple of nights, she had to follow me around and help me out if necessary. Likewise, I suggest that you include your students in the nitty-gritty of being a scientist. Bring a student along if you are taking a speaker to lunch. If it’s a more senior student, have them make the arrangements for lunch. Give your junior students copies of your grant applications to read. Ask your senior students to write sections of your grant applications. Show your junior students how to review a paper for a journal. Get your senior students to review the paper and discuss it with you. Ask your students what they thought of a particular faculty candidate. Express your opinions about a particular faculty candidate.

And, for the love of God, take them with you to scientific conferences and spend some time introducing them to people. I love my adviser to death but the man goes to ground when he’s at a conference. It is, of course, my job then to ask him to introduce me to a specific person.** Which I do. And he does. But then he disappears again.

These are only a few suggestions, touching on only a few aspects of being a successful scientist. I’m sure that faculty know better than I what one needs to be successful in science. All I ask is that they share this information with their students in a more systematic way.

What the students can do

If your adviser does not include you in these important aspects of Science, then ask her to. Ask if you can help review a paper. Ask to see her grants (especially ones you are contributing data for). Ask to write a section of the next grant. Ask if you can tag along when she takes the speaker to lunch. Ask if there is a way for students to invite a speaker and if there isn’t, ask if your adviser will do it on your behalf and allow you to arrange the details.

Ultimately, the person who cares the most about your training is you. You are the person most affected by poor training. Sure, it hurts your adviser to a certain degree but it hurts you a lot. So take charge. Don’t let them get away with a half-assed attempt at training you. Make them do their jobs. Nobody else is going to do this for you.

[Edited to add:  PhysioProf points out in the comments that I misinterpreted his comment to Drugmonkey’s post.  I’m glad he made the effort to clarify.  It goes to show that there are advisers out there who are not as unreasonable as we students seem to think they are.  However, I am leaving the following section as is because (1) I have heard many students complain about something that their adviser is not doing and when I ask if they have talked to their advisers about this, the answer is almost always no and (2) if I changed it then Physioprof’s comment to this post make no sense and I do not like to delete comments.]

Finally, I would like to address something that PhysioProf said in the comments of Drugmonkey’s post.

PhysioProf says:

The shit DrugMonkey is talking about ain’t that frigging complicated. It’s not like quantum chemistry or something. A small investment of effort goes a long way.

My husband is an astrophysicist (stick with me here, I do have a point). He is, quite literally, a rocket scientist. In the early days of our marriage, when some gift-giving occasion rolled around I would start dropping hints about what I would like to get. I would say things like, “You know, I really liked the earrings so-and-so gave me for Christmas. Every time I wear them, I think of her.” Or, “So-and-so’s husband took her to Snooty Restaurant for their anniversary.” And every time, he would not get me the jewelry or not take me to Snooty Restaurant. And I thought, “He’s a smart guy, he should figure this out. After all, it’s not rocket science. If he really cared, he would pay more attention.” For his part, my husband could not understand why I was sometimes disappointed with the gifts he gave me. They were perfectly lovely gifts. They were on my amazon wish list (he knows better to try to get creative after a disastrous instance in which my college diploma was shellacked) and yet I was not happy with them.

Finally, I gave up on the hints. Recently, I have flat-out just told him what I want. Here are two examples:

“I know that we are celebrating my birthday late because you will be out of town but if flowers or candy or something from you does not show up in lab on my birthday I will be upset.”

“I have run out of Chanel No. 5. When I was getting low, I asked for some for Valentine’s Day, but you got me something else. I then asked you for some for my birthday but you got me something else. Both of these were lovely gifts and I appreciate them. However, if you do not get me Chanel No. 5 for Christmas, I am going to go out and buy it for myself, now that I am completely out of it. So, you can either have that expense incorporated into what we normally spend for Christmas gifts, or it can be an extra expense to figure into the budget. Your choice.”

I got flowers on my birthday. I got Chanel No. 5 for Christmas. I was happy. My husband was happy that I was happy. In short, things have been much smoother now that I have decided to just come right out and ask what I want from him and tell him what I think he needs to know. The man is brilliant in many aspects of science. He does a lot of math in which there are no numbers whatsoever. Likewise, he is a terrific husband in many, many ways. But he is clueless when it comes to giving gifts.

Being straightforward about expectations is helpful for any relationship and the adviser-trainee one is no exception. Trainees, you think your advisers should know that they should be teaching you how to write grants. Advisers, you think your students should just know that they should go to seminars or that if you think out loud about a particular problem you are experiencing they should just know that this is your way of training them.

Screw that.

Just come right out and say, “Hey, I’m going to be writing lots of grants in my future, so I would like some advice on how to do so.” Or, “I notice that you haven’t been going to seminars. Attending seminars is an important part of your scientific training and I expect you to attend more in the future.”

There is merit to forcing students to figure some things out for themselves. However, I cannot see any sense in watching someone consistently do something wrong and not at least tell them that this is something that needs to be fixed.


*Do not, I beg you, ask me why I don’t suggest this to The Powers That Be. I have. They do not think this is the sort of thing that I should be focusing on at this stage in my career. *sigh*

**Yes, I know I could introduce myself, but sometimes I don’t even know what this person looks like. And don’t tell me to look them up on their departmental website because I happen to know that the pictures of faculty on our departmental website are old. In one case, a certain professor has a full head of hair in his photo and I happen to know that he has not even had half a head of hair for the last 8 years.

My 2 cents

Over at ScienceBlogs, Janet Stemwedel has begun a series of posts entitled “The project of being a grownup scientist.” She first talks about being a graduate student and realizing that being a “grownup” scientist is not just a matter of being able to do research. There is grant-writing, networking, mentoring, managing a lab, determining where to submit a paper, how to deal with reviewers, how to be a reviewer, and so on. She then speculates about why advisers don’t talk to their trainees about these sorts of things.

Drugmonkey, has a slightly different take. His post is entitled, “Scientific Careerism 101: Yes grad students and post-docs it IS your fault.” His is the perspective of the adviser and he wonders why students are not more proactive. He asks why trainees do not pay attention, why they do not ask for help, why they do not go to seminars anymore (I admit, I’m confused about that one as well, this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem at my institution since at most seminars there are far more students than faculty), and why students don’t realize that graduate school is a job. These are all good questions.

Well, I am a student. And I have a few questions of my own.

Why, when students request programs to help them with career development (as we have at so many curriculum committee meetings at my institution) are we told, “That’s not what you should be focusing on?”

Why, when we wish to pursue career development opportunities, are we chastised for not being in lab slaving away at research?

How, after four years of undergrad work where requirements are specifically laid out for you, are we supposed to figure out that there is more to being a scientist than research, and, if by some chance we do figure it out, how are we supposed to know how to accomplish that part of our education without any instruction? Divine revelation?

In short, why don’t advisers realize they have responsibilities to their students above and beyond funding and troubleshooting experiments?

Frankly, if someone tells me one more time, “Oh, you just pick that up as you go along,” as an explanation for whatever arcane aspect of careerism I have just asked advice for, I am going to bash their head in with a crystal ball. Pick it up how exactly? Could you please be just a tad more specific? I ask you, would you send a student down to the electron microscope and say, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure it out sooner or later”? Seriously, why are we given so much training in important things like “how not to break this absurdly expensive piece of equipment” and not given any advice at all in how not to break our careers*? Why are we required to sit through hours of radiation safety training about how to properly fill out radioactive waste disposal forms and not given one–just one–seminar writing a successful grant?

Now, as it happens, I agree with Drugmonkey to a certain extent. I do think that students and post-docs should be more pro-active about career development. Some students really are quite good at this. However, some students do not even seem to realize that the decisions they are making now have a large impact on their future careers. Forget networking, I mean things like, “If you want to be faculty at a top research institution, you are going to have to have a phenomenal post-doc career. You are going to have to get a position with a super-star. You are not going to get that position if, as a graduate student, you only publish one paper in a 3rd tier journal. You just aren’t.” It’s like they have forgotten everything they ever learned about getting into a good college and then getting into a good graduate school. And, it can take awhile for students to catch on that there is more to being a scientist than benchwork, sometimes too long (I know one student who, in his 4th year, still thinks there is not much of a difference between being a tech and being a graduate student; this explains a lot about how much progress he has made on his thesis work). This is not acceptable.


Students are in graduate school to–not to put too fine a point on it–be trained. We are there to be educated. If graduate school were strictly a job, then there wouldn’t be a question of tuition, nor would there be a degree at the end of it. And our advisers would probably get into trouble for how many hours they expect us to work.

We are not little data-making machines. We are not “cheap labor.” We do not exist solely to provide data for papers for advisers to pad their CVs. We are not fully formed scientists who are only there to put a little time in so that we can go on to become little perfect clones of our advisers. We are trainees. Yes, we should be proactive about our own education and career development. But our advisers (and degree programs) should be, too. There needs to be acknowledgment on the part of The Powers That Be that they have some role in training us to become fully-fledged scientists with all that entails.

I’m not talking about spoon-feeding us information. Not only is that not desirable, it’s not helpful. Someone who is spoon-fed everything is ultimately not able to eat on her own. What I mean is that advisers and students need to be partners in the students’ education. Each side should recognize that they have responsibilities and act accordingly.

Degree programs also should recognize that they need to provide more than classwork on various scientific subjects. In the ideal situation, the student’s thesis adviser would provide all of the training that student requires. But, as we know, many situations are far from ideal. Advisers may either not recognize that they should be doing a little more for their students than paying their tuition or they may simply not be very good at some particular aspect of being a “grownup” scientist.

Now, I try not to be the kind of person that sits and complains that there are problems but not provide any solutions. Those are in the next post.


*A student’s future career is actually quite a bit more expensive to the adviser than most pieces of equipment if you consider that, by paying tuition and a stipend, advisers are investing in that student’s future.

It’s real

Result C.1 is in and I am back in business!  My hypothesis is correct and I’m moving forward.  I got some good pictures today, pictures that will hopefully be good enough for publication.

Result C.1

Awhile back, I told you of my woes in trying to get Result C from Experiment 3.  Well, I’m in the midst of Experiment 4 which will hopefully give me Result C.1.  I have great hopes that it will do so because I did a quick and dirty experiment and got Result C.1.preliminary.  I should be really excited.  And I am, sort of.

See, I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks trying to refine the outline of my paper.  A good paper should tell a story.  And I think I have a story.  The problem is that right now, the story is full of holes.  I have a lot of data.  But that data isn’t in a form that is publishable.  Some of getting it publishable involves repeating experiments with the right controls or running a gel that includes all of the samples I want to directly compare.  But, some of it involves new experiments.  That scares me because that’s how I got Result Fish when I did Experiment 3.  And while that story is going to turn out okay in the end (I think.  I hope.), it still meant that I had to take this several week diversion trying to get it all sorted out.

The bottom line is, reconfiguring this outline made me realize just how far away from graduation I really am.  And it’s a lot further that I thought it would be.