Notes from the Road 06-07-16

— Man, I love driving. I think I should increase the distance which I decide to drive (as opposed to fly) when going to a conference. How’s 1000 miles?

— Pro-tip: When driving in the middle of the night, find a truck and just stay behind it. It shields you from the wind and rain and helps with poor visibility, let alone with the creepiness factor when you are the only car on a poorly lit road.

— The conference has been all that I want in a conference thus far. Great talks, plenty of room for discussion, conference venue close to lodging and food, good food (included in the registration), a somewhat secluded location that further facilitates interactions among attendees.

— This particular conference places extraordinary weight on the free exchange of ideas. There is a lot of interaction among attendees in the morning and evening sessions and the afternoon poster session. All the face time is leaving me completely exhausted, so the free time in the early afternoon (where we are supposed to mingle further) I spend — napping. I am a total baby. Or an introvert, expending a lot of energy to simulate being more extroverted than I am.

— I got to see my former postdoc (FP) who is midway through the tenure track and doing great. We had a nice evening yesterday catching up with some local beer and peanuts. I am so happy to see he is well supported by his department and generally quite content, both professionally and personally.

— Which got me thinking… How proud do I get to be of FP as my intellectual offspring? I know that FP’s PhD advisor gets to claim that his PhD graduate is now a prof. But in reality, FP would not have been competitive for faculty positions at all without the 4-year, very productive postdoc he had with me. I have one former PhD student who’s doing a postdoc elswehere and who I think will eventually be faculty; do I get to be proud of him? Or does his postdoc advisor get most of the credit for the success? Or do we all (PhD advisors and postdoc advisors) all get to be proud and brag about our intellectual offspring doing well?  But even in the eyes of the NSF, FP was “just” my postdoc; NSF considers a PhD advisor-advisee relationship to be a lifetime conflict of interest, while the postdoctoral equivalent only for  5 years. So PhD advisors are forever, postdoc advisors are chopped liver?

— There’s this upper echelon of scientists who don’t seem to operate like the rest of us plebs do. When I look at the literature, I read and cite broadly, regardless of who the authors are. These creme de la creme folks seem to only look at what their equally stationed buddies do (they know everyone worth knowing, amirite?), so the work outside of this network is completely invisible to them. Even if you do good work, careful and thorough, you cannot get them to notice you because you are inherently not noteworthy (if you were noteworthy, they would already know you; the fact that they don’t means you are not worth knowing).

— Maybe you don’t penetrate the in-crowd, but there are plenty of other smart and hard-working people who do good work, who do look at the literature, and who will find your results, appreciate them, and build upon them. So put your head down and just do good work. And keep reminding yourself that we should really all be in this for the science, and that science does eventually self-correct.

— Some people give their talks titles that are a complete snoozefest. I almost missed a couple of presentations because I thought they’d be totally irrelevant to what I do (no abstracts). It turns out, they were both great and relevant, but poorly named.

— It’s “how something looks” or “what something looks like”; it’s NOT “how something looks like.” Ugh. This is one of my pet peeves; I heard one speaker use “how something looks like” 5+ times in a talk today. Ugh ugh ugh.

— Note to self: Never again go to a conference where you are not genuinely interested in a topic. It’s a waste of time and money. In contrast, a conference like this one, where I really am passionate about the topic, is a fountain of excitement and inspiration. Even if I have to nap midday, like a toddler, in order to process everything.




  1. Your pro-tip will also end up saving you a few bucks, as you’ll get better gas mileage!

  2. I’m the total opposite with respect to driving! I hate all forms of driving and get nervous about doing something wrong here in Switzerland. Yesterday I was out and could have rented a car or taken the train for the same amount of money. Much preferred the train.

    A 3-hour drive is at the limit of tolerable for me. Any more than that? Nope! Gonna look hard for alternatives, even if more expensive.

  3. What are the practical consequences of not being in the ‘in’ crowd in your field? You seem to be well-funded, have good grad students and post-docs, get published, and teach well (in other words, you are doing everything right!) Does not being in the ‘in’ crowd affect your day-to-day academic life? Or is it more of an annoyance that you are not recognized by these people in the literature and are ignored at meetings? I am not trying to downplay your feelings, I am just interested in how it affects you. BTW, I think you rock, so this is not in any way trying to tear you down!

  4. In a situation I’m familiar with one of the in-crowd people literally said in a paper “this is the first direct evidence of X”. When there was a paper from a colleague that showed exactly X, with very similar evidence, 4 years prior. Furthermore, there was evidence of X going back almost a century using completely different methods (maybe you could argue they weren’t “direct”). None of this lit was cited.

    Bad scholarship hurts everyone in the field, and it makes the in crowd people look like they don’t know the literature or are just really greedy (I’m leaning towards the latter in this case). Of course, they don’t care because they are rolling in grant $$ and science/nature papers.

  5. I hate driving. I wish the intercity trains/buses in ProdigalCity were as functional and useful as in other places.

    I love targeted conferences, and I admit that I often need to spend the afternoon free time at that sort of meeting resting by myself or I am too exhausted to function after a couple of days.

    And I think you get to claim FP and be proud. You get to be proud of everyone who worked with you, even the undergrads. I certainly plan to be! 🙂

    And I agree that the CoI rules are ridiculous! I had much more one on one interaction time with PD advisor than with PhD advisor. My current research is closer to PD Advisor than to PhD Advisor, though I am pretty far from both at this point.

  6. Or an introvert, expending a lot of energy to simulate being more extroverted than I am.

    That is me at meetings. Day One, full of energy and talking to everyone. Day Two, kind of tired and eating lunch alone. Day Three, taking a nap and eating dinner at the hotel bar by myself. Day Four, utter exhaustion.

  7. You get to be super proud of all of your former mentee’s accomplishments!!
    I would never have gone to grad school were it not for my undergrad mentor, who got me into research. I would never have become faculty or pursued anything close to what I do now were it not for my postdoc advisor. PhD advisor was great too, but still ranks #3 in my list of most influential mentors… so screw NSF and enjoy FP’s successes 🙂

  8. Speaking of advisor-advisee relationships: what would you advise someone to do when their postdoc or grad mentor develops an inferiority complex wrt them?

    I have a good friend whose relationship with her mentor seems to have deteriorated over time, and based on what I know about her (worked with her before, known her for many years socially) and what she’s shared with me (a lot! but admittedly, I only know her side), I think this best explains her problems. The guy is newly tenured but still trying to make his way. My friend went back to school after several years at a start-up — she was already a kick-ass scientist! I think that has now sunk in for him, and despite the obvious benefits to him of having someone like her in his group, his ego just can’t seem to take it.

    I’ve been telling her to cut and run ASAP, mostly because I think he’s the problem and there’s nothing she can do to fix it. Plus, after having heard some of the things he’s done, I don’t trust the guy at all! But she doesn’t give up on people easily, even when she should, and I know she’s also concerned for her future. What do you think? Am I steering her wrong? Should she make some sort of effort to work things out with him? And what would that even look like….

    (sorry for the derail, but I’m really concerned about her.)

  9. Be proud of all in whose training you had a hand, at whatever stage. Mentorship is a shared thing, and all of my mentors played roles. I am equally excited about the accomplishments of former undergrads, grad students and postdocs, and at this stage of my career, also of younger and peer faculty who I have mentored. The people whose lives you have touched for the better are a more important legacy than your science.

  10. TOS: There are several aspects to this issue that come to mind and that may or may not be of importance in this particular story.

    a) It takes a very self-confident individual to be the advisor to someone who is of similar age or greater age, especially if that someone has considerable technical prowess and lots of experience.

    b) Men as a group take challenges to their authority (even warranted ones) from women much harder than they do the challenges from men, because women are supposed to always be somehow deferential (even when they are formally an equal or technical superior). The same challenge (or even just a perceived challenge) from a man or a woman is looked upon very differently; it will result in the woman being viewed as bitchy, combative, difficult, etc.

    c) Even the best and most patient advisors won’t tolerate for long what they perceive as behavior that is meant to erode their authority in front of other members of the group. I always seem to have one guy who seems to love to have the last word on everything in group meetings; I now know what to do, so these don’t persist very long. And this is more of a problem with female advisors and male advisees than the other way around. But I know I used to be much more ruffled by these attempts to somehow establish dominance over me in front of other group members when I was a junior professor than I am now.

    d) Sometimes people are unknowingly obnoxious know-it-alls. Sometimes these obnoxious people are professors, sometimes they are students. Nobody likes obnoxious know-it-alls. But, based on whether the obnoxious know-it-all is a superior or a subordinate in whatever hierarchy is at play, those who are irritated may have more or less of an ability to affect the level of irritation.

    Having said that, it’s entirely possible that your friend’s advisor is feeling insecure or otherwise bad because of your friend. It may be just his own weird $hit and whatever problems he is dealing with. She may or may not have contributed to it, inadvertently or not, justifiably or not (for instance, by insisting on how something should be done because she did it in industry). Regardless of who did what, it’s probably best that she seek another advisor, possibly an older one and/or possibly a female one.

    Doing a PhD is hard enough even without anything weird going on, even if you have a great and supportive advisor. Life’s too short, and a PhD even shorter, to work with an advisor who can’t be effective in his role with you for whatever reason. It’s fine to go seek someone else who can.

  11. Xyk, thank you for the very thoughtful response. I would just like to add that wrt points c & d, my friend is far from an obnoxious know-it-all, and she has always been very careful about when and how she contradicts her advisor in front of other group members. But I think she mistook his early friendliness towards her as a sign that she could speak freely with him in private. So you may well be right that she inadvertently contributed to the decline of her situation….

    The thing is, though, that after dealing with her for a while, it dawns on you just how smart and quick she really is. I confess that when I first met her, I was jealous. But she is *such* a nice person, with such a generous, kind heart, that I quickly got over it. Anyway, I think that her advisor is Salieri to her Mozart: he recognizes now how brilliant she is, and no matter what she says or does, this simple fact is what he cannot stomach. Plus, anytime that she turns out to be right and he wrong must be like a punch in the gut for him – and this happens not infrequently.

    Anyway, I feel much better now about giving her a push in what I think is the right direction: out. Thanks again!

  12. TOS: Yeah… In an ideal world, your friend’s advisor would say, “I have this extraordinarily brilliant person in my group — awesome! That means I have a secret weapon and all this super challenging and high-impact work will get to be done in my group and not elsewhere! And I can take credit of recognizing a diamond and helping polish it to perfection!” The latter is something that mature advisors think about; if your friend’s advisor thinks of himself as the second coming and a rising star, i.e., is still completely focused on self-promotion (not of his group, but of himself as an individual brand), he may not look kindly upon meeting someone who is so obviously more talented than him…

    I have a senior collaborator who says, “All my group members are smarter than me. That’s why I like working with them!” Your friend needs someone like that to be her advisor. There are many such advisors, who understand their own importance and role in the enterprise of science and are not threatened (but are rather delighted) by working with a brilliant young person.

    Good luck to your friend!

  13. They say A’s hire A’s, but B’s hire C’s. Some people are threatened by colleagues who are more talented.

    But I agree with xyzademiqz–it could also be awkward management skills in a new PI. It is really hard to manage people who are similar in age (or older), especially if they have more experience. But it doesn’t matter why the relationship is not working, just that it isn’t. You should tell your friend to move on if she can. That said, if she decides to stay, you should support her in her situation as best you can without constantly nagging her to get out.

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