Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Same Old Shit

I wasn't going to post again this soon because I didn't want to hog the airwaves, so to speak, but I just have to write about this before my head explodes.

DrugMonkey wrote a post on Nature's recent not-so-objective review of PLoS. It's a great post, but in the process of venting his spleen on the Nature article, DrugMonkey also decided to take a dump on scientists who chose alternative careers as journal editors.

Geez d00d, do you understand that one of the biggest knocks on the GlamourMagz is the fact that the editorial decisions aren't being made by respected senior (active, working) scientists? Instead of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears punks who opted for publishing jobs because they were barely hacking it as postdocs, never mind barely making it as junior faculty?

And here is part of the comment I made on that post:

I happen to have worked with one of those "wet-behind-the-ears punks" before he became an editor. He was a fantastic academic scientist and his taking an editorial position had absolutely nothing to do with lack of ability to hack it in academia.

Seriously, it's because people make sweeping judgmental statements like this that grad students and postdocs have to turn to anonymous blogs to get information on non-academic tt careers.

Now I'm not saying that there aren't incompetent scientists who end up in alternative careers because they couldn't hack it in academia. In fact, I have occasionally worked with incompetent scientists who I have wished would opt for a different career. Preferably something that did not involve me. But these sorts of assumptions really fucking piss me off.

I should point out, however, that DrugMonkey has been kind enough to link to us and add us to his blogroll. And I, for one, am appreciative of the number of people he has sent our way. So I'll assume this one rant was an aberration and not representative of DrugMonkey's general views on people who choose alternative careers.


Drugmonkey said...

nope, not general. Specific to those who go to GlamourMagz and then reinforce all that is Wrong With ScienceTM.

But yeah you have a point about the way that sounded...

Mad Hatter said...

Thanks for clarifying, DM.

Anonymous said...

you're being to kind Mad Hatter. You're defending the editors by saying that they were "superb scientists" who just chose otherwise, but there are also people who just don't quite make the cut. As we've said, the tournament model, the demands against family life, mobility issues, . . . all constrain people's options beyond their intrinsic talents.

Thus, opting to chose something other than PI/research head as a career shouldn't be seen as a failure *only* if the person could have made it anyway. It also shouldn't have to be seen as a failure if someone decided to balance their life the other way, or didn't have the project that worked out, or . . . .

The key is whether the person who is doing the job has embraced it (be it industry, editor, program officer) or continues to bear a grudge, hoping for something different than what they have, and bearing resentment against those who have it. Editors in particular rarely seem like they are coveting the demands of being a PI.


maddox22 said...

Personally, I object to the "couldn't cut it as a PI/prof/etc" explanation for why one would choose or end up in a different career path because a) it implies that being a PI/prof/etc is somehow a superior occupation than anything else could possibly be, and b) it implies that the workload and demands of any other job can't possibly be as onerous as those of a PI/prof/etc.

Would I have made a good researcher? Probably not. I admit this freely. Is it because I'm not as smart, not as committed, or not as valuable to society as my advisor or other students I was at school with, who are excellent researchers? I'd like to think not. I resent the implication that I chose to follow a different path because I wasn't good enough to do "real" work. I'd like to see how well the PIs would do without funding and interest from industry and the government, which are (let's face it) the two most common "alternative" employers...and I'd like to see a lot of the professors I know try to hit the deadlines a lot of the rest of us live with every day.

Of course, I am not saying that research is easy or unvaluable. Just that it's not the only challenging, rewarding, useful career out there--even for people with Ph.D.s.

Mad Hatter said...

Neurolover--Actually, I was only defending the one editor who I had previously worked with. For all I know, the rest of them are all hacks! I'm joking, of course. My objection was to the assumption that they are hacks because they ended up in editorial positions.

And I completely agree with you that people should not be perceived as failures because of their career choices, regardless of the reason for their choice, and that the ultimate indicator of success or failure is whether a person embraces his/her chosen career.

Maddox22--You're totally preaching to the choir here! :-) But in all fairness, I do think there are some PhDs who want to be tenured professors, don't get tenure for whatever reason, take an "alternative career", and end up resentful of what they themselves perceive to be a failure to get a tenured professorship. But hopefully most of the people in "alternative careers" are like us!

Drugmonkey said...

maddox22 you are asking for a very hard thing.

People have a tendency to think what they (think that they) chose to do in life is Good. Better than some other choices.

People also have a tendency to take pride in their accomplishments and achievements, particularly if they are seen as select, hard to attain, etc.

At some level, there are indeed going to be people who just can't/don't cut the mustard at some task, endeavor or career.

All this adds up to a set of personal biases that, gasp, just might sneak out now and again. I'm not defending this, it is not one of our nicer characteristics. But it is a characteristic.

you are asking for us to get beyond this. nice, but perhaps naive.

maddox22 said...

Okay, I acknowledge that the desire to think oneself (or one's career choice) superior to others is a built-in characteristic. But that doesn't mean we can just ignore it when those assumptions go unchallenged. You could equally well say, "well, it's human nature to think that people who are different from us are inferior. It's nice to think that one day we might not judge people based on what they look like or where they come from, but it's really just a pipe dream. Let's face it, no one is going to give up that bias."

All I'm saying is that, yes, we all would like to think that our jobs are better, harder, more valuable,etc than everyone else's. But using the "well, it's just human nature" excuse to not challenge those assumptions is something I'd expect of the ignorant. One of the benefits of having these huge brains we have is that we get to choose which assumptions and built-in biases and "human nature" quirks we run with, and which we ignore. (Within reason, of course, unless you're a Jedi or something.)

Becca said...

I'm a grad student, and we organize a biannual career day at my institution (if anyone is near central Pa and willing to come talk to a bunch of grad students about alternative careers in '09, let me know! I probably won't be organizing it but I can always pass on the info...).
Anyway, we had a GlamorMag editor come and talk to us. She clearly couldn't hack it as a professional scientist. She excelled in grad school and her post doc and all, but then she made the horrible mistake of having a kid. To add flames to the fire, she'd always been interested in many disciplines! The horror! All right, a mommy-scientist that nonetheless shares the "proper" monomanical obsesion with her topic? The system can adsorb a couple of them, as tokens. But A mommy-scientist with diverse interests? Unfit for PI-dom! FAILZ!

Drugmonkey said...

You could equally well say, "well, it's human nature to think that people who are different from us are inferior. It's nice to think that one day we might not judge people based on what they look like or where they come from, but it's really just a pipe dream.

Sorry but I see a big and categorically important difference between someone taking pride in making it to the point of a professorial appointment, grant funding in hand and research papers published and taking pride in the white skin or dangly bits they were born with. I just do.

And I think most of society tends to agree with me to the extent that accomplishments are a still a more or less acceptable point of pride whereas genetic endowment..not so much.

becca, those people (GlamourMag editors) piss me off for reasons having to do with the influences that that approach to what is Greatz! about science has to do with the conduct of science on a very broad scale. I won't pretend that I am not primed to take my shots at them when annoyed by things like that Butler piece.

The nice way to put it would, I suppose, be- while such individuals maybe could have been great independent scientists they apparently chose not to pursue that and so we'll just never know. They could'a been contenda's. or not.

And that's the main trouble, isn't it? That we'll just never know until someone tries.

It shouldn't escape anyone's attention that one of the reasons I encourage people to seek non-standard grant writing positions or permissions is because I favor that "trying" to be the point of trying to get a grant idea funded by a granting agency. That's the gate keeper I'd prefer.

Still, there are always going to be gate keepers. And people who say "I could'a! if I'd just had a different break". And there are always going to be people who actually couldn't have made it. These populations do have some overlap.

So for all those personal anecdotes of people who trod this path, how do you know they could have cut it? How do you know this about anyone you hold up as an example of someone who could'a if the circumstances were "fairer"? I have one example of a scientist who was a fairly crappy/lazy trainee (grad student/postdoc) by self-admission. I personally think that if this person could have just gotten past the postdoc stage and managed to luck into a faculty position that s/he would have made an excellent PI. ..but I don't know this for sure...

Mad Hatter said...

Reading the last few comments, I actually don't think our positions on this issue are really that far apart.

If we just take the pool of people who want, and choose to pursue, tenured professorships, there will be some of them who get those positions and some of them who don't. The ones who don't can technically be said to have "failed" in procuring their desired position, but that doesn't mean necessarily that they are "failures" in general for winding up in a different career.

The same is true for any other position people choose to pursue. Someone who is a much better researcher than s/he is a writer could want, and choose to pursue, an editorial position and "fail" to get the editorial position but land a tt position. It becomes obvious that making these designations of success and failure when comparing different career paths are arbitrary at best, useless at worst.

So the real problem is the constant comparison of "everything other than tt" to tt. And this is a sore spot for many of us who are in alternative careers because of the existence of a population of tt and pre-tt people who view "everything other than tt" as failure.

Anonymous said...

Responding to Becca's comment - I am mommy professor with diverse interests ranging from K-12 to graduate education and just made a major change in research direction. I'm worried now (seriously). I thought changing direction to a hot topic would help in getting grants. Need to scramble and do some framing here so people don't see me as mommy prof with diverse interests.

Anonymous said...

You know after reading all the different views over the past few months I think my best chance at success is to just not mention kids, maybe take off my ring too, as I start my new job. This is where I'll whine about all my constraints.

Becca said...

@DM-actually, my point was that this bright, successful and friendly person probably would be a failure as a PI- because of how the system would view her.

My point is not so much that the system denies positions to those who could cut it. Although the system does sometimes this (and it is sometimes offensive), my point is that the system makes it difficult to succeed if you don't conform in certain ways. I'm not sure the system should select for people who are only interested in one niche or people without familiy responsibilities.
I'm pretty sure the system shouldn't select for antisocial monomaniacs... but sometimes it seems that it does.

@Science cog-
Oh noes! I want to see more glorious generalist mommy professors, not fewer!
That said, I don't know enough about the strategics of getting hired to say anything about wise ways to frame one's interests. Good luck on the job search!

Mad Hatter said...

Science Cog--I am sympathetic to your concerns about being a mommy prof. Don't know much about your field, but in mine, women with children do get tt positions and do get tenure. There aren't tons of them, but then there aren't tons of female tenured professors to begin with.

I guess I'm wondering whether one can successfully hide the fact that one has kids for the entire duration of one's tenure clock, and whether that would actually be beneficial. DrDrA has a great post up about loss of productivity for women with children and how that affects their ability to get funding. That's not really a problem that will go away by not talking about the kids, right?

Anonymous said...

I loved the hilarious comment by DrugMonkey as the provocation it was. But at the same time I think the interdisciplinary experience of these professional editors is something very useful in picking out which are the most newsworthy papers *after* publication. I don't think anyone really likes the part of trying to get past the editor when submitting to a journal, but editors are usually well-trained, knowledgeable and smart (in my experience). Even in a completely reformed publication system, their training and expertise would still be required.

Anonymous said...

DM wrote: "People also have a tendency to take pride in their accomplishments and achievements, particularly if they are seen as select, hard to attain, etc. "

You're projecting your own personality flaws on the universe, here.

You obviously think very highly of yourself, and you think much less of anyone who has failed to share your own goals. Such people, you clearly believe, are inferior by definition.

Get over yourself. How old are you, anyway? You come off as being *quite* immature and suffering from a *severe* case of tunnel vision.

But, hey, how proud of yourself can you be if you blog anonymously? Is it so nobody can check if you're bitter due to a lack of publications?

Drugmonkey said...

jon: feel free to enjoy your naive view about people's behavior; it doesn't mean you are correct. Perhaps it is you that lacks seasoning if you fail to grasp general human traits.

As to me feeling superior, hardly. I comment frequently on the element of chance that influences career direction. I find that many people tend to ignore such factors and assume outcome means they were personally more-deserving.

Finally, I am quite open about my typical level of publication which is not CNS. It is your loss if you choose to hear credentials over argument.