Thoughts for a Wednesday…

I am about up to my eyeballs in busy around here. I decided to teach my first full-length solo course at the new MRU as a flipped classroom and, it turns out, that’s a ton of work. Also, one of my students has been invited to give a talk. So, while I feel Beyoncé, I do not even have time to be taking dudes to Red Lobster right now. I’m going to just start keeping gift cards in the night table. That’s going to have to be good enough.

But, if you have an extra couple of minutes, you should go read this. It’s brilliant. My whole integrated self feels like it’s ok that we are not the same (#subtweets)…

Advice for an Almost Finished PhD

My dearest lovelies, I thought I would take a short break from the frequent navel gazing of this blog’s recent reincarnation and answer a letter. Here we go…
Hi Dr. Isis,

I’ve read your blog since I was a first year masters student, and since I have 1.5 years until graduation, that’s a long time. I’ve always loved your advice.

Recently, I’ve been faced with a challenge and I thought to turn to you. My supervisor is an MD, not a PhD, and his style of supervising is hands OFF:  usually checking in that there is progress once a week, leaving the student to figure out next steps (no advice) and complete them by the next week (and report them). It definitely is not at all similar to many of the PhD supervisors I see around me and how they interact with their students.

When I returned from maternity leave [a couple] years ago (after [a couple] years of uninterrupted work), he started complaining that I did not progress as fast as he would like (not necessarily true). I have [really a lot of] published articles (several first name), am fully funded by an outside source/scholarship as a phd student, and am generally very hard working and motivated. However, because of his suspicions, he started breathing down my back, checking when I arrived and left the lab each day, expecting multiple daily progress reports, being extremely upset every time something failed  (which happens in science), treating me to multiple degrading lectures, etc. He is very negative about my work even when it is good (did not even want to send my work to a high IF journal but rather said “it’s taken you so long, just send it to a low IF journal and be done with it”) , and definitely does not even really realize that I’m leaving in 1.5 years. He also has not worked in the lab in years, and usually has small grants.

I recently refused a project as it would take time away from the focus my committee has requested of me, especially since I plan to leave in 1.5 years. He was very upset about it (even though it is written clearly that I should not work on it in the committees recommendations).
bone shoe
How can I manage his unrealistic expectations and his condescending behavior for the next 1.5 years? Any advice?

I am including a cool shoe for the goddess of shoes and of science:
Almost there PhD Student
There’s a lot to unpack in this writer’s letter. First, mentors come in all different shapes, sizes and attitudes and its easy to ascribe some traits to MDs and some to PhDs. I don’t know that they’re generalizable, though. I once had an MD mentor who was very “hands off”, but I know a couple of others who are very “hands on” with their labs and take great pride in their bench skills. I also had a very “hands off” PhD mentor that I met with every 1-2 weeks. He was very senior and had a lot of administrative and never, ever set foot in his own lab. I think, as a result of these different experiences, I tend to be more “hands off” myself. I can see the value in the struggling I did and I think it was beneficial. I think I learned some very important lessons from my failures and I like to give people the latitude to also struggle a little. The tricky part is to not let people struggle too much or too long. I think sometimes I struggled far too long, and I hope to not do that to any of my trainees. The part about not working in the lab? I don’t hold that against a dude. The longer you are a PI, the more your job transitions from hands to ideas.
Managing expectations, especially after maternity leave, can be a different beast. It’s possible that some of his displeasure is projected from his own lack of success. I get a sense from how you describe him that he might be under some pressure. That is to say, if he’s not being productive in securing grants, he may fault the folks working for him and see it as evidence of their own lack of productivity. That is to say, if you all were doing even more, of course he’d be getting all the grants. I don’t know. It’s not a good look, but it’s possible. It’s just a hypothesis. But, related to this question, I did hear an interesting story on NPR this morning about men taking paternity leave. The economist being interviewed talked about sources of fear related to paternity leave – not getting promoted and decreasing long term earning potential. But, in environments where fathers started taking leave, the number of fathers taking leave in subsequent years increased. When fathers saw other men take paternity leave without long term consequence, they were more willing to take leave themselves. That seems intuitive, but its an important observation and not just applicable to men.
But, I digress. The question is what to do about this person’s demands. I think it’s reasonable to ask why he wants you to do these extra projects. I agree that you absolutely have you stay focused and you shouldn’t deviate far from your goal of graduation, but a lab also has to keep the lights on these days and it’s not easy. Sometimes I ask people to help with things that aren’t necessary fundamental to their thesis work, but that are quick experiments they can do easily that generate important preliminary data for a grant to answer a reviewer or some other such bullshittery. Sometimes I could just use a little help getting someone else’s over all project finished. Sometimes you can help ease someone else’s burden and not have to be like a salmon, forced to swim upstream to reach your goal.

Then again it’s possible that he really is just an overbearing, difficult spazz. What can you do to fix him or change him? I don’t waste much time these days on trying to change people. I’ve learned from a decade of post-graduate training and an ex-husband that you can’t really change people. You can, however, get the fuck out.  You’ve got a committee that seems to have clear goals for you, you’re well-published and you’ve got a plan. Graduate and get out and move on (providing he’s not actively blocking your exit or success. That’s a different animal). If you really can’t come to some kind of understanding as to why he’s such a pain, put your head down and move on.

Zeta the Betta Demands a 40 Hour Work Week

I spent the day out of the office with Little Isis, who had the day off in observance of MLK Jr.’s Birthday. We had a hilarious day together. We went to the library and then shopping so that he could buy a fish. In our new house, Little Isis has his own bachelor pad on a different floor and he’s been saying that he’s lonely and needed a fish. He saved his allowance and today acquired Zeta the Betta. He was very proud of his punny name choice.


As is common among kids his age, he then spent the next several hours learning in the hallowed halls of YouTube University. Since concluding his studies, he’s been trying to explain to me that you can “get your fish to come” and is generally perturbed that this makes me giggle like an adolescent.

Speaking of non sequiturs, it really chaps my ass when I find myself in the middle of discussions over whether it’s ok to write with a pseudonym on the internet. Some how I got tagged into some Twitter discussion this afternoon that included a discussion of whether pseud opinions are relevant to a particular topic. This bitch has 99 problems, but those trolls ain’t one. I don’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about whether my opinion is trustworthy or relevant.

mariah sell her album

But, the general topic I was tagged into was still interesting. Ish. Ok, not really, but I got called to the yard, so…

Some dude at Caltech sent his postdoc the following letter:caltech.png

The predictable discussion ensued about whether it is appropriate to ask for more than a 40 hour work week from trainees, although I rolled my eyes a little and needed a cocktail over the fact we’re discussing a letter from 1996.

mariah tea

Now, this letter is a little a wacky and I have been a long time advocate of “work-life balance” or whatever the heck that means, but I also don’t believe that our jobs can be done in 40 hours. Many of the lab tasks that are learned in the my field require repetition. Sometimes experiments have to be tended to in off hours. There has to be time for reading the literature and intellectual discussions.  The question was then posed as to whether my training life was still “fun”.

Yeah,my life was pretty fun. I ate a lot of buffalo wings and drank a lot of beer. We had some rad parties. I hopped a fence and ended up swimming in a fountain. I fried oreos and sat in a dunk tank and helped throw a grown ass woman a quinceanera. I made out with a chick to get her to help me take @I_is_for_Indian home after our shenanigans got out of control. You might say I had too much fun.

But, I have frequently spent weekend morning hours catching up on my field and I can’t remember a time as a trainee where I consistently worked equal to or less than 40 hours.  Many times now, dinner discussions turn to experiments or grants or papers. Those sneaky hours, where science infiltrates our daily lives, become work hours. The blessing is that I find this all intellectually gratifying. My kids get my undivided attention when we are together, and I regularly reschedule my day to accommodate them, but science is a harsh mistress and she gets many of my hours and much of my mental energies.

Jobs for young faculty members certainly cannot be done in 40 hours , at least not in the current funding environment. As I recently explained to a teenager with an interest in science careers, my job is 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. My time devoted to service and teaching don’t really change, but as grants become harder to come by, the only way to get grants is to write more grants and the only way to write more grants is to work more. Even when you get to the point where you can reuse grant material, you still have to submit them. My dean doesn’t care how many hours I’m working, she just wants results. That’s how most professional careers work, though, and I suspect that I have always been harder on myself than others were on me.

I’ll grant that there are some folks out there  who push their trainees unrealistically hard and make obscene demands, but I also wonder how much of this conversation is because of self-imposed expectations that are then  attributed to “PI expectations.” This post on a recent Harvard job search is informative and worth a read. Apparently there is a large self-selection because of what trainees think the expectations are, and it’s simply not reality.

I don’t know where all of this pressure comes from – whether its external or internal, but I’ll keep working until the job is done.

-20F and the $1000 Emergency Fund

I think that we have only barely survived this weekend’s “arctic blast.” With wind chills in MRU town of -20F, I warned the Isis children that their mother is from a warm weather state. So, we would be hunkering down for the weekend and subsisting on whatever could be cooked together in a single pot. The kids were generally good sports about it, but this afternoon Little Isis started to come off the rails a little bit. He asked, “Can we go to Pancheros and get some normal food?” “Are you willing to risk going outside and having your butt cheeks freeze together?” I replied. The threat of a frostbitten rear end was enough to convince him to veto the trip to Pancheros. Instead, we cooked a pot of fish, beans and rice. Cooking like this lately as been reminiscent of being a kid, when the only choice really was to cook everything you could find in a pot and add rice.  I also felt a little relieved to not have to ponder giving Pancheros my money. As StrangeSource has put it, I have become a “cheap ass bitch” lately.

There has been a lot of beans and rice, rice and beans lately and a lot of adjustments over the last year. Dipping my toe back into the blogosphere, I’m still not sure how much I want to share about the last year, but a cornerstone has been the quest to get Sallie Mae out of my life. I deferred my student loans while I was a graduate student and a postdoc, and then made the minimum required payments for the next couple of years as the pressures of job and family squeezed tighter. I didn’t struggle to make the payments, it felt selfish to pay more on them when there were so many things my family “needed.”

Then in August some things hit me in a major way. I watched someone close to me have a bit of a mental meltdown over their finances . I also seriously started going through the process of budgeting as a single mom with two kids in daycare and have sports and need clothes and do all the things that two kids do. I had negotiated a summer salary for the first few years of my time at MRU, and I started to realize that, if I didn’t get enough funding to keep covering my salary, things were going to get tight. I started to really resent the student loan payments I was making, and that they would contribute to my budget’s tightness if I lost my summer salary.  I also calculated how much wealth I was losing by giving the money to Sallie Mae instead of investing it.

It’s funny, because I have listened to Dave Ramsey for about 15 years. I listen to him just about every afternoon as a sort of white noise and have otherwise taken pride in living debt free. But I hadn’t really thought about my student loan as being in the same category as the other types of debt he talks about. When I started listening to him, massive student loan debt wasn’t a problem and he frequently spoke to people who had car loans, subprime mortgages, home equity lines and massive credit card debt. I didn’t have consumer debt, other than a conventional mortgage. When I had taken out my student loans years before I found him, I’d been convinced by my college counselor that they were an investment and would return much more than their cost.

As everything started to churn in August, I started to hate my monthly loan payments and, more importantly, what they represent. Federal student loans are the one debt you can’t discharge in a bankruptcy.  If you default, the federal government can make your life miserable. The amount of debt students are currently accruing is obscene, with stories of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt floating around. This is, in large part, because there is no debt-to-income calculation that happens in student loan lending. If you tried to take out a similarly sized mortgage with no job and no income and no equity, the bank would laugh you out the door, yet we saddle students with more debt than they can bear. I started to hear friends talk about being relieved that they could have their student loans forgiven after 25 years. 25 years, when their most important wealth building years have passed. And, the return on investment for taking the loan out in the first place may not be worth it. My student loan started to feel like the same sort of predatory debt as a subprime mortgage or high interest credit card. I didn’t have a lot of debt, but every time I looked at it, it felt like a tick and I abhorred everything it represented.

So, I decided that we were going to be gazelle intense and get it out of our lives. The idea of gazelle intensity comes from Proverbs 6:4-5, which says Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” The gazelle can outrun the cheetah by swerving and turning. It’s that intense because it’s the only one in the race whose hide is at stake. Sallie Mae is the predator, but there’s always something else to catch. The gazelle is running for its life.

Importantly, Sallie Mae and her lending buddies prey the hardest on people that are the most vulnerable – underrepresented populations, those that come from economically disadvantaged families and first generation students.

Me and the Isis family have worked together to pay off half of the student loans since August and we should be done this summer. It’s been an incredible lesson in contentment. What do we really need to be happy? When the TV went out, we didn’t replace it. Half of the light bulbs in the house are out, but we joke that it’ll lower the electricity bill. Little Isis laughed when he heard a song that said “budget” in the lyrics. We’ve played a lot more board games and eaten a lot more meat-free meals, but we’ve had a lot of fun. Importantly, I think my kids understand the reason for everything and we’ve had some important discussions about money and debt and saving.

I realized tonight that, for as proud of myself as I have been, I have one “child” who hasn’t benefited from these lessons.  My youngest brother, who you may remember lived with me a couple of years ago, called me in a panic tonight. He was full of anxiety because, for the first time in his life, things were going well for him and he was bracing himself for everything to fall apart. He was terrified at the prospect that things would go bad. I realized that his insecurity was coming from a lack of a safety net and that he needed to stop living paycheck to paycheck and start tucking away an emergency fund. Kids from our barrio hood don’t learn how to handle money. They learn how to survive and he’s ready to move past that now.

So, baby steps. One baby step step at a time.

Thoughts For a Wednesday…

I think it’s Wednesday. I don’t know. Fucking grants make everything blend together…

I am finding the discussion of postdocs and overtime and salaries and alternative careers tiresome. Here’s why…

1)  I am tired of the supposition that postdocs are underpaid compared to the amount of work that they do. The average medical resident salary is $55,300. When you consider that more than half have >$50,000 in educational debt specifically from medical school, the postdoc salary looks more fair.

2) I am tired of people who throw around the words “most” and “usually” when what this means is “In my limited experience, based on the people I see directly around me.” Looking at one or two samples and saying “everything is broken” relects bias of the worst type. Aren’t there any places where things work?

3) I am also completely exhausted with how out of touch with reality most of these arguments are. For example, someone purported this morning that because the median salary for people with greater than a masters degree is $66K, postdocs should be paid on par. That’s patently ridiculous and magical thinking. A median of the entire population is the wrong number because the median salary is essentially the same as the salary of the person on the next rung of the ladder. Especially when many of us are still getting letters that, despite the improvement in the economy, say “Sorry, but we’re in a budget shortfall and there’s no room for raises (even though your cost of living is going up). We thank you for your understanding and continued commitment to the service of the university’s mission.” Making this argument only reflects your complete ignorance with how economics works.

4) Finally, I am totally exhausted with the exploitation narrative, which only works if there is a universal bad guy who always stands in the way of treating you fairly because it benefits their evil plot. I’ve thought about this whole work hours/salary/overtime shenanigans. I like the idea of work/life balance and have replied to many that I would advocate for a 40 hour work week. That’s not what many of these people want. They want to continue to work however many number of hours they please, complain about being overworked, and get a bigger salary for it. But, see #3.