Friday, May 2, 2008

The spawn of negative results

The other day I was reading a very interesting post by Mrs. Hyde on negativity. Science is by nature a negative field, which some of us deal with better then others. As scientists we are trained to analyze, question and critique. When we are giving presentations, whether they be in a lab meeting, at departmental seminar or at a conference, the purpose is to present our data for others to critique. Some (a few rare exceptions) know how to ask questions or provide critiques in a constructive manner, but the vast majority know only how to criticize without providing any positive re-enforcement. To add insult to injury, getting to a point where one actually has data to present usually involved months of failed experiments – troubleshooting and optimizing an experiment until it actually worked. The basic cycle is that you spend months trying to get an experiment to work, when it finally does you present it and it gets “critiqued” aka the shit slammed out of it. Although the slamming and the criticism is directed at the data or “the science”, if you’re the one who designed the experiment, trouble shot and collected the data its not hard to take the words “that data is shit/crap / incorrect because” as being personal. If the experiment approach or design is crap, you’re the idiot for designing it that way. THAT is NOT TRUE. ITS NOT PERSONAL. And its not, in an abstract sort of way, disliking the science does not equate disliking the person. I can say that objectively when its not me on the hotseat. But really how do you not take it personally since it was you that spent the days, weeks, months working designing and trouble shooting. To you it is personal, you don’t graduate or finish a post-doc without it. To top everything off, throughout this process a grad student or post-doc has probably no heard the words “you’re a good scientist”, “what a good thought process”. Surrounded by failure and criticism it is no wonder that grad students – male and female suffer self-doubt and become bitter. It is no wonder that many people (again male and female) leave science after completing their PhD’s or post-doc positions.

The ones that stay in science, tend to be very thick skinned. They don’t give a shit what people say because you don’t survive if you care. Which is why many (not most or all) PI’s have limited interpersonal skills and limited teaching / mentoring skills. The process of Science selects for those type of people. The self-doubt, negativity, and bitters is gender neutral. Bad mentorship, poor PI-student/post-doc relationships are gender-neutral. Perhaps the issues arise from the way men and women react to the issues? Not quite sure and I think that is a different post.

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