Where is the networking sleaze-line?

(by bashir) Oct 31 2013

Relating to this article on how to maximize your changes of landing an academic position.

Bashir story time:

A few years ago I’m chatting with a prof in my department. Let’s call him Prof Ted. We’re talking about mentoring and he tells the story of how great his graduate school mentor was. When Prof Ted graduated in the early 1990s from Prestigious WestCoast Uni he actually had 0 publications. Zero. But his graduate advisor knew that he was a very smart man who deserved a job at a university. So his advisor called up people he knew at other universities and made it so. Prof Ted got the job he now holds, at a pretty nice university with zero publications to his name, but one phone call.

After relaying that story Prof Ted just kind of nodded at me, as if to say see isn’t that a great story?

I nodded back, but overall I don't’ think I had the reaction that Prof Ted was expecting. It seemed to cross the "networking sleaze-line", not to mention the "old boys club" line. Would my reaction be different if Prof Ted didn't come from a prestigious university and wasn't part of the demographic that dominates my homogenous department?

19 responses so far

Advancing how Science is done

(by Dr Becca) Oct 23 2013

“The more ‘revolutionize how science is done’ proposals I read the more I am certain that lack of diversity is a critical failing of the profession”


I personally have a lot of experience with systems. Education, Justice, Academic, etc. They all have conventions, incentive structures, power structures, rules, and ‘rules’. Shit is complicated. Look at the newspapers, there always some attempt or proposal to improve one of these. Or simply a lament about how fracked up and off kilter the system is.

A lot of people seem to feel that way about science. That seems totally reasonable. There is serious room for improvement. It seems we are awash with ideas of how science could, and should change. My response to these proposals is often ; How is this going to work well for everyone?


Fig. 1 "don’t you worry your  little head about that"

The responses have been a bit tepid to me.

What does this have to do with current lack of diversity in science?

Story time: college aged Bashir visits the big city with a few buddies. We happen to wandering the city at the same time as a huge anti-war protest (smart move on our part). We came across an area where dozens of riot police were setting up and waiting for the protesters who were allegedly just minutes away. My buddies wanted to stay and watch. I wanted to leave immediately. I had zero interest in being near riot police in action. It did not occur to them that the system, in this case criminal-justice system manifest by riot police, would not work right. It was supposed to work. The riot police would somehow know we were just nice college kids and not protesters. I can tell you that did not match my expectations of the possibilities.

Same thing here with science (no tear gas though!). Is the shiny new system going to get fracked up and screw over some people (women, minorities, students, etc). Take a look at the back and forth about Open Access and the glamor publication game. I was really feeling Dr. Isis’ responses (here & here).

Folks who do not have a lot of experiences with systems that don't work well for them find it hard to imagine that a well intentioned system can have ill effects. Not work as advertised for everyone. That is my default because that is my experience.

Bad intentions are not required for things to not work well for everyone. Even with the best intentions. Systems are run by people. People have biases. Systems are complex. Things can add up. Ignore this possibility at your peril. Equity and diversity cannot be a side dish to be brought up every now again, it has to be baked into everything.

There are a lot of ideas out there about where to take science. Many good in principle. I appreciate the idealism that is driving this forward but the ideas require just as much critique and skepticism as we put into our work.

This is not about blame for current or even possible issues. It’s about getting it right being a high priority from the jump, not just post-hoc lip service.

4 responses so far

Priorities and speaking up

(by Dr Becca) Oct 12 2013

A few years ago while walking my department's hallway I just barely heard something odd on the air. One of those words. No, not that word, but close enough. I turned a saw one of the departmental admins smirking at me. He said hello and walked by as if nothing happened.

A lot of things went through my head that moment. I wasn't on my A+ "fuck racist" game. I didn't have a witty retort for him. I actually did nothing at all about it for a few days as I had urgent professional and personal stuff that had just come down. As the weeks rolled around I started to think about making some sort of official complaint. Looked up any rules and regulations. Thought about likely outcomes. I would have to go to the department head. Would he be sympathetic? I'd have to explain it. There'd be a lot of "well that word isn't bad, right?" or "maybe that's just how he says it". I'd be playing up the Angry Negro part. Even if I had a completely legitimate complaint. I'd be "that black guy who complains about things". Being shut down seemed like a much more likely scenario than anything else. For a variety of reasons about the environment in my department I thought any official response would be unsympathetic at best.

Sciam Blogs seems to be living this out right now in regards to their decision to censor Danielle Lee's post calling out another blog network's bad behavior. I can't tell you how disappointing this looks. It feels like one of those moments, and I've had plenty, where a person truly shows you what their priorities are. Sometimes you just have to say goodbye. I hope that this isn't that.


One response so far

Your Science vs. Your Career

(by Dr Becca) Sep 09 2013

Many of us science students and trainees clearly see this. What is best for your science is not necessarily what is best for your science career. They aren’t opposite forces. I don’t think most researchers constantly have to choose science OR career. More like overlapping lines at an acute angle. Do I lean a little more towards what may be good for my career or best for the science. A little bit of playing the game or doing what is right. This can be seen in a lot of choices we make: which journals to submit papers to, which questions to pursue, methods to use, how to write papers (Lest Publishable Units or Complete Stories) and even which positions to take.

At the extremes are views that the only way you can make it through what is a brutal career market is to either, take the highest road and just be a Good ScientistTM or embrace the politics and become a total Game Player. In my experience most scientists do a little bit of both, though I know a few people who seem to have taken either of these extremes. Some have done well career wise, others have not. I know a few people who were total Good Scientists who got their butts kicked career wise (and some Game Players who seem to have out gamed themselves).

Some pragmatic aspects of careerism may be a necessary byproduct of what is a complex system. We are not individual scientists in some sort of platonic science-verse (talk to your local history/philosophy of science major). Everyone exists in a particular context, your family, country, the various systems in it. We have needs and constraints beyond simply being a Good Scientist. On the other hand much of this may just be entrenched habits that science could do without. I suspect there are both necessary evil byproducts and entrenched conventions and it will take some time to shake things out.

You will hear that from time to time. “A real scientists you would [BLANK]” Work 80 hours a week. Skip your kid’s events to work. Publish in certain journals. Interact more with the public. Interact less with the public. Be on Twitter. Live tweet every analysis you’ve ever done while putting raw online in real time. Buck the system and become a Gentleperson scientist. Etc. Etc.

There seem as many opinions of what to do as there are people. To me it is unclear if there is one true path through these decisions. Moreover, it’s not clear to me how much can be generalized from person to person. My friend with the Nobel-winning advisor at Harvard thinks people worry too much about graduate program prestige. He didn’t. And his career is going great. Whoop-dee doo. We’re all in the same system (I speak of academic science) but may be in very different situations.

Every person I know with a successful science career has done a bit of both. My grad and postdoc PIs are great examples of this. Both have successful careers by any measure.  Grad PI always minimized the game playing. If it was necessary she’d do it but was mostly a “just do good work and let the chips fall where they may” type of person. Postdoc PI is the opposite. Loves the networking. Aggressive about all sorts of career goals for herself and her trainees and is also a very good scientist. More of a “do good work but don’t forget to grab those m--- f—kin chips” person. I can’t say one approach is better. They are both successful and as far as I can tell, pretty content.

7 responses so far

Morality in Context

(by Dr Becca) Aug 29 2013

Here's the picture:

 Black scientists less likely to get NIH grants.

Academic pipeline sheds minority scientists at every level. (17% -> 13% -> 7% -> 4%)

Resume's with "black sounding" names perform worse (even with same skills/experience)

Prestige Game in Academic Hiring (hint: still a thing)

Excel Graphs to Fuel Your Essitential Crisis (i.e. more prestige games)

Morality of Open Access & Diversity in Science. (and another Dr. Isis post).


4 responses so far

Science books for parents

(by Dr Becca) Jul 29 2013

"Having a baby is a lot like having a dog that very slowly learns to talk"

Though it is not my area of research I get a lot of questions from new parents. How does the whole infant development thing work? What about language learning? Brain development? There are plenty of books directed at parents out there in the "using this amazing method! it works" style. Much of it skimps on, or misrepresents research, and leans towards evangelizing. Books by researches tend to be less prescriptive and more descriptive, though if you read between he lines they all have their own perspective. Here are a few written by researchers:

Roberta Golinkoff

Einstein Never Used Flashcards

How babies talk

Alison Gopnik

The philosophical baby

Joan Stiles

The fundamentals of brain development

Sara Hrdy

Mother Nature
(Not about infants per se but comes highly recommended)

These are all pretty basic how X works books. There's not too much "what to do when you toddler jumps behind to butcher shop counter and starts licking raw chicken" sort of advice. That's a post for another day.


3 responses so far

Managing your otherness

(by Dr Becca) Jul 02 2013

(Adventures in code switching. This post is a bit rambly)

Back in the day I attended a prep school on the other side of town (0n my first day, in my naivete I asked "Are the other black kids sick today?"). There were a few, but not many. Some years later we had an interesting new addition from my side of town. Right away I could tell there was something odd about her. She always acted and talked the same. Sitting at the (black) lunch table or in math class. Always pretty much the same. We didn't know the term code-switching but we certainly knew it. It's not something we discussed any more than you'd discuss breathing. It's so normal you don't talk about it until someone isn't doing it. The new girl wasn't doing it at all. She had no practice in what I and the other black kids were quite adept at: managing our otherness.

I am no expert on code-switching or AAVE. During graduate school I saw a talk by a professor who studies code-switching and literacy in African-American children. She spent some time going over some examples of AAVE. Many folks when asked to describe AAVE basically do a bad impression of a character from The Wire, often focusing on "they be". As the professor goes over these examples at first I recognize all of them. Then she slips one last one in that I didn't get.

"That's not standard English?"

Everyone looks at me funny. Nope.


Somehow that was embarrassing. Not in the moment. I thought back to all the times I'd spoken using that phrasing (countless) thinking it was standard when it wasn't. Did everyone else know this? Did I use that during talks? Yes. Job interviews? Yes. Why didn't any one tell me? The idea that I wasn't fully aware and in control of how I spoke was disconcerting. I needed to know when I was being other and when I wasn't.

What's the big deal if you can't code-switch at all? My highschool classmate had trouble being taken seriously by people who associate standard English with intelligence. I even know of an academic who is AAVE all the time. She ended up stuck in the lots of interviews but no job offers limbo. Goods good on paper, doesn't do well in interviews. She suspects a lack of code-switching skill is hurting her prospects.

It-shouldn't-be-that-way's aside it's clear that managing your otherness is a career, if not life skill.

14 responses so far

Something new

(by Dr Becca) Jun 03 2013

Did  a double take as I walked into lab today.

It looks like we got a new batch of summer students. There are a couple of new faces. One looks a little unusual.

I have been continuously working in science labs for the last 14 years. That includes working a long side many postdocs, graduate students and legions of research assistants. I am trying to go over those years in my mind to make sure this is not en exaggeration. I'm pretty confident it's not. Today is the first day in 14 years there's been another person of the same race/ethnicity in the lab I work in.

3 responses so far

Bold moves to tackle some lingering problems

(by Dr Becca) May 15 2013

NIH is bringing out the big guns to address the often discussed issue of the under representation of minorities in science. Which I'm sure is tough given the general grant crunch and sequester issue. You can read all about it here and here. If you don't care to wade into a thicket of admin-speak here are some highlights.

"six-month planning grants to enable under-resourced institutions to form partnerships and position themselves to prepare applications for the multi-year BUILD implementation funding opportunity, anticipated to be announced in 2014"

Basically grant to help you plan to apply for a grant. But what is BUILD exactly?

"This program aims to provide innovative training environments through the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) initiative, a strong national mentoring network through the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) initiative, and robust coordination to disseminate lessons learned from the most effective programs through the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC) initiative...."

"BUILD will allow the development and testing of novel models for underrepresented student recruitment and training within the biomedical sciences."

A mentoring network and some long term tests about what they might-could do about the issue. That's it. The due dates for this "planning to think about maybe considering at some future time doing some mentoring of minorities" grant has just past. The NIH diversity page just looks like this:


Makes sense.

3 responses so far

The Permanent Present Tense of H.M.

(by Dr Becca) May 06 2013

Psychology & Neuroscience have some great stories that combine human interest and scientific mysteries. Oliver Sacks uses this to great effect in his books (I highly recommend The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat). One of the more interesting stories is getting a book treatment. H.M. the amnesiac patient. To make a long story short & simple, H.M. to treat a problem with seizures, had brain surgery way back in the 1950s. That involved having a lot of his hippocampus removed. Turns out it's kinda important for memory formation. So H.M. just stopped forming memories and became 'stuck' in the 1950s. For some time he participated in memory research as perhaps the most important single participant in human brain research.  Memory researcher Suzanne Corkin, who worked with him for some time, has penned a book aptly titled Permanent Present Tense. This is another one of those, unique person contributes to science stories, similar to Henrietta Lacks (without the ethical issues).

"He is considered the most important patient in the study of the human brain, known worldwide only by his initials, HM. In death, we learned his name. He was Henry Gustav Molaison. He died at a nursing home on December 2, 2008, at the age of 82, after living for most of his life in a state of permanent amnesia. Over 55 years, Mr. Molaison was the subject of intense scientific study, and he's credited with helping scientists unlock secrets of how we form memories. When he was 27, Mr. Molaison underwent brain surgery to cure a seizure disorder, and that surgery left him unable to form new memories of his own." (source)

I haven't read it, I don't have an advance copy or anything, but it will probably be interesting. Especially if you are not familiar with H.M.'s story, or what we know (and don't know) about how memory works. I will probably end up getting this one for some beach vacation reading.

6 responses so far

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