Academic Riff Raff.

Academic Riff raff.

The current academic system (like present day academia, it assumes no 'alternate' career paths exist). Science Goddesses and Gods leaving us riff raff down below except a rare chosen ones (the rest will be left below...).
The current academic system (like present day academia, it assumes no ‘alternate’ career paths exist). Science Goddesses and Gods leaving us riff raff down below except a rare chosen ones (the rest will be left below…). Yes, I know it kinda looks like XKCD…call it an homage.

The President of the ASBMB had an essay talking about how academic, low quality riff raff (now are in charge of making (poor) funding decisions for who gets grants these days and how that’s a problem. Here’s how I understand it: NIH/NSF/DOE/USDA. A wretched hive of scum and villainy…Reviewers/submitters must be cautious (#SciWars).

Drug Monkey and Dr. Isis (and I presume many more– just look at the comments to ASBMB post too) have very good posts all about it.

As a member of the postdoc riff raff that coincidentally Drug Monkey also addressed a few days after his post cited above (I acknowledge I have not been a very good postdoc, I needed to work harder, get past my own psychological issues better/faster and just produce papers, period- I will submit one this month!). My PI has been better than I have a right to hope for. I have some thoughts below.

So what is it I’ve done in my science career (as I see it)?

I started this blog (the running joke is that it’s about exactly how not to be a postdoc and hopefully guiding myself to a more productive way of thinking– slow process), writing about depression, anxiety, and other things that really seem to plague a lot of academics (some succeed despite/with these things, others, like me…still trying to figure it out because I suck?!). I’ve published as middle author on a few papers, I’ve served on committees for some things, I got the ASPB to adopt a conference hashtag/incorporate twitter at conferences and live tweeted their annual meeting twice (though really, they were probably already thinking along these lines).

A lot of what I’ve done is try to get past my own mental blockage of perfectionism (the bad kind), the fear of judgment, paralyzing anxiety, feeling like I am lesser than every other human on the planet, trying to please other people ahead of myself, adopting a growth mindset (<– Can’t stress this one enough), not doing nice things for myself (maintenance, sure- exercise, eating mostly right, but all in service of trying to be a better scientist), struggling to have a life…get out from under shyness and actually do something in this world (after all, according to everyone I see on the internet, doing things is easy…you just do them…and you’re done). In some ways, it’s remarkable I’ve been as productive as I have. I do blame my brain, but then it’s me…there’s an idea in Buddhism that the first external arrow that hits you causes pain, but after that, everything else you do in reaction to that arrow, you do to yourself– usually not for the best.

Moe Sizlak had a line on ‘The Simpsons’ “I’m better than dirt…well, most kinds of dirt…not that fancy store bought stuff, I can’t compete with that”. A few years ago, I would routinely say that about myself (I know, scientifically, dirt is not insulting and quite fascinating…soil too). That I was an embarrassment of a human being taking up space on the planet someone else could use more productively than I ever could…

And I got close to acting on those feelings. I prayed to get run over by a bus or truck or have a piano fall on my head. Why didn’t I? Well, because there were always people I felt that cared about me and I couldn’t do that to them. Needless to say, great science doesn’t come when you’re in that mindset.

Since that low point, I’ve steadily improved and feel better than ever (I made a cartoon…would never have happened a few years ago)…but still all the success is in my own brain. I don’t have an amazing career (may never have one, eep!), I’m still not particularly good at getting my ideas out there (though I’ve gotten better about speaking out about mental health…that some say is courageous…but I started doing it because I felt I had nothing else to lose by doing so), I feel way behind in every conceivable way possible, and basically otherwise am not enough. I don’t always feel so bad about how I’m doing in the world,

How do we measure success in science?

For me, it has been merely a surviving, not thriving. And I think usually, the first has to come before the latter can occur. And publications is one way, a great computer program, a startup, perhaps even teaching and communicating can count, perhaps this blog counts as helping scientists be better themselves somehow (at least some of them).

That’s my hope (the basics; if you feel like you’re getting depressed, nip it in the bud, fast; if you are depressed, address it; it’s treatable. Adopt a growth mindset of improving over time, be curious). Blogging for me was also about building a writing habit (so is tweeting in a way, though that’s been about finding like-minded, interesting people and networking– Twitter in a lot of ways really has helped me hang on and I’ve met a ton of great people).

This whole thing over whether scientists should or shouldn’t tweet is partly about scientists figuring out how they can stand out more– to have more metrics they can add to their CV (Science, Nature Cell, AND 40,000 Twitter followers! I rule MOAR than the other person with only the first 3!!!!). Because it is about standing out these days in an era when hundreds of qualified candidates go up for every position out there (note, I do not count myself among them…my great accomplishment that doesn’t really help with my career materially- it doesn’t ‘count’– is treating my depression effectively so I can go live life, maybe).

This is partly the income inequality argument our society is dealing with too (see cartoon). Better to be on the PI side of the gap that seems to be widening each year the funding agencies struggle to fund science each year (and of course just pure cash money isn’t the full solution).

One in 10 or 20 of us will get chosen to be a PI for reasons possibly unclear to anyone (why that person?! They may not know exactly themselves, they just know they were and good for them (perhaps the Science Gods and Goddesses bestowing PI status/funding were beneficent that day, or perhaps there’s a higher purpose for that person). The fact that it feels natural to discuss this in religious terms belies just how opaque and mysterious becoming a PI is to me at least (yes, I know, publications, funding, engagement, networking, a startup founded, popularity, amazing idea after amazing idea…but plenty of candidates have those…though not really me).

How to split responsibility for my lack of career? Probably 90% me, 10% the man/the system/whatever, it’s mostly down to me (even my self-flagellation in this post is me being very unhelpful to myself). It’s possible I’ll make a great PI someday…there are diamond in the extreme rough stories I suppose, but probably not. My hope now is to just remain science adjacent. Science is amazing and I do think it’s a golden age for it in a lot of ways, just not particularly good for the actual scientists that practice it.

I like science because I like to think I’m helping someone somehow. I like mentoring undergrads, I like teaching, I like doing the research/coming up with ideas, I like to write (obviously), edit, and explore ideas.

Science is creative. And as a creative field, it is very hard to do, particularly when resources are extremely tight. It also relies more and more on collective creation, many minds coming together to solve a problem. Most PIs and PDs are not trained managers (research matters, people skills…less so, though that too seems to be changing a bit), we learn on the fly, and so the getting great science out of someone is not an easy equation to solve sometimes (both PIs trying to get the best out of their lab personel and PDs getting the best out of their PIs)– in fact the I think there are some things about the structure of science that get in the way of that goal too.

I hope I’ve learned some tricks and tips about managing/interacting with other people that will serve me well in the long run. For now, I need to get back to work…on something. My middling manuscript, perhaps.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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