Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How do you stay positive?

From a couple weeks ago, a longish cri-de-coeur on Reddit from a graduate student that is tired of the grad school game. It also has quite the remarkable quote: 
There is a rather popular Nobel Prize winning professor that likes to describe himself by saying, "Kinetically, I'm an asshole. Thermodynamically, I'm a nice guy."
And then this very good question:
I want to get over the personal nonsense I've had to deal with in the past 5 years, finish strong, and go on to have a promising future... But, I just don't see a way to simultaneously let my love for chemistry take priority, and have the terrible people, social disorders, and marginalization take a back seat. 
So, now, my question directed to all of you is, quite simply, what positive force motivates you? How do you challenge the current, crummy order of things, and overcome it? 
I'd like to think harder about what positive force motivates me, but off the top of my head? What motivates me at work is my regard for my colleagues. I want to see myself as a contributor to the company and to the bottom line; I think that I am. I know that my colleagues are, too. I work for a smallish company and I want to be seen as someone who is reliable, kind, generous and both smart and wise. I try hard at this (most of the time.)

Regarding challenging the current order of things, I think it's not necessarily about 'fighting City Hall' every step of the way, but seeing opportunities where they exist, and taking a risk on being kinder and more generous than people expect.

Readers, what do you think? 

26 comments:

  1. I love this quote: "and taking a risk on being kinder and more generous than people expect." So important and so difficult for some because it is an apparently vulnerable position. However, if you look closer it's really a powerful position (in my opinion).

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  2. As a grad student I have (calmly but firmly) called out my boss for a few times for their passive-aggressive/mean/contradictory behavior towards others. There has been small incidences of passive-aggressive retaliation, but not enough to mess with my career. More importantly, it took an edge of nastiness off my boss in public. Honestly, it's more important for me to say that I did what was morally right than I toed the line - with an eye to how I'll look back on grad school 10+ years from now. I think if someone wants to "challenge the current order of things" then they HAVE to take a risk and stand up for themselves.

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    1. Socrates' HemlockApril 4, 2017 at 10:58 AM

      It's a tough, lonely road to stand up for your beliefs, though. It's like Plato's Allegory of the Cave, where not only does the boss retaliate but also all your coworkers double down on defending him/her both to validate their own sunk costs of putting up with the bullshit and to curry favor with the now vengeful tyrant... Am I glad that I bucked the system? I'll give that a qualified yes: yes, insofar as I can sleep with myself at night, but no insofar as everything became infinitely harder with my coworkers looking to slip a knife in my back at every turn (metaphorically, I hope...). ymmv, but if you're a highly moral person keeping your head down might not be an option

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  3. The reality is that coping with a**holes, narcissists, and naysayers is not unique to academia or graduate school. The sooner you come to terms with the fact that these kinds of people are going to be ubiquitous and successful, the better of you will be. When dealing with these kinds of people, I ask myself "What's the worst case scenario if I just walk out of this job today?". The answer to that question has never been "I die lonely and unmourned", so I'm able to recognize that all of the a**hats in my life really have no meaningful power to dictate my happiness or contentment. True, they control my paycheck, but there's always another job out there, and I've been poor and happy before and can do it again. Oddly enough, simply recognizing that I have the liberty to walk out the door at any time is usually enough to keep my head high.

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    1. I think the real difference in Ph.D. granting programs is that most people feel they only have one chance to get the Ph.D. If you leave early due to an abusive advisor or other concerns that happen in other workplaces, you forfeit all the progress made in that program. In industrial employment, I feel there are better chances for a lateral move to a new position with a new employer. In graduate school, it's more likely one would have to start over if moving to a new advisor/discipline/university. Imagine working three years in a program and scraping by, leaving, and then having to do another five to six years of service in a new program; at best, it is fiscally unwise. The feeling of lock-in is really where a lot of emotions, both rational and otherwise, come in to play. In the aggregate, this condition further aggravates the power disparity between advisors and graduate students. I'm really not sure of the solution.

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    2. One could argue that earning a PhD is fiscally unwise under most circumstances, but perhaps that's a discussion for another time. I can't help but think that many of us bring this misery upon ourselves because we want to work with a name-brand PI. This decision is usually motivated by self-interest, such as getting more visibility in the community or getting a better job. Neither of those things are inherently bad, but ambition has a price. While I'm sure there are a lot of students who join a group and only later discover that the PI is an abusive tyrant, I also know that these kinds of reputations are hard to keep quiet. How many students enter a group thinking "I'll just keep my head down and work hard. 5 years isn't that long". I know I did. If there's a power disparity, it exists because graduate students and postdocs allow it to exist by lining up to join these kinds of groups. An abusive PI with no students or postdocs is just a penniless, impotent a**hole.

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    3. "The reality is that coping with a**holes, narcissists, and naysayers is not unique to academia or graduate school." - True, but the percentage of such people is a hell of a lot higher in academia than in industry.

      "What's the worst case scenario if I just walk out of this job today?" - when I was a grad student, I thought the answer to that question was becoming a middle-aged loser who works a menial job, lives with his parents, and smokes a lot of pot. If I had any idea that quitting was an option, I would have gotten out much sooner with my sanity intact.

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    4. I recently started in industry. I told people I was moving to get away from assholes, they said "assholes are everywhere". I was right... there are vastly fewer here.

      And yes, the reason I didn't quit sooner is because I thought I wouldn't be able to get a job more demanding than making pumpkin spiced lattes if I did.

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  4. You need to be careful in that the worst sort of people will interpret kindness as a sign of weakness. I think some good advice comes from the movie "Roadhouse": "Be nice until it's time not to be nice."

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    1. Those kind of people, though, you are unlikely to deter very effectively - if they see all lights as green, well, it doesn't matter what kind of lights you flash.

      You have to be aware that people can be recalcitrant a-holes, but 1) those people shouldn't be determining your mindset and behavior (it gives bad people power that they should not have in any case) and 2) you may escalate situations and worsen relationships that could be better dealt with in other ways. There are times to stop being nice, but they aren't that often.

      It's also helpful to understand that (as Gavin DeBecker put it, roughly) nice is a social skill. People can be nice (or appear nice) without being good or trustworthy. Being good is something that is within your power, as long as you don't give that power to others.

      I didn't do that well in my PhD studies, but helping the people around me and trying to find out neat things was enough. It didn't make me completely happy, but it was something useful.

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  5. Grad school made me into a pessimistic a-hole. I am still a pessimistic a-hole but mostly remember the good times. But if you are late in the game, just think the positive is that you get to leave and hopefully never come back.

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  6. Academia is a bubble that has very different value systems from the "real world". It can be hard to discern this fact when you're inside that bubble, but it's true.

    Doing a PhD is an intense act of self-development, and it's important to do a good job at it, but it's even more important to simply get the degree and move on. Especially if you dislike being in the bubble, as your correspondent seems to.

    Figure out your exit plan and work towards it -- once you're out of the bubble you'll be able to see more clearly and figure out the right path for you. IMO.

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  7. Am I the only person (at least who frequents this blog) that had a reasonable grad-school experience? My advisor was very encouraging of work-life balance and had no problems with me working ~8-5 M-F. I graduated in just under five years with a solid number of pubs and am currently in the first year of a postdoc. I guess I just got lucky.

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    1. I think I had a pretty reasonable experience, and I still like and respect my PI.

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    2. Anon, maybe in the lower to middle tier graduate schools, this is more prevalent. I attended a middle-top tier school and everyone was a zombie, pretty much hating life, working 6+ days a week with little personal life. I could not fathom that, but I also work at a place with little promotion of work-life balance and it is like pulling teeth to try to get days off, let alone going home early.

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    3. I didn't do well but my PI supported me and helped me look for a job when I left. He didn't really care how long you spent in lab, but only what you got done, and people generally worked but not ridiculous hours. (I was not in a synthesis lab). He could be ornery but he was just and he worked hard. I was at a good school so I don't think it's necessarily the type of school that determines the PI's attitude.

      As noted below, the PI (and the attitude of kitty's group) is probably the main contributor to your well-being and success. That doesn't help the poster, but it is important to keep in mind, particularly in applying to places that only have one prof you want to work for - you need to have a pretty good idea that you could work there for four or five years and maintain your soul and sanity (and, beyond that, that you can grow and mature as a scientist).

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    4. "Am I the only person (at least who frequents this blog) that had a reasonable grad-school experience?"

      I had a pretty good experience in grad school, though I do recall a few months toward the end that were....less good...but if the road to a PhD were that easy I doubt it'd be worthwhile. Though I'm geographically thousands of miles form where I went to grad school, I do make it a point to visit my PI whenever I'm in the area (admittedly maybe every 5 yrs or so).

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    5. My grad school experience was fairly good, we worked hard with long hours and there were a few lab mates that caused frustration, but in general cohesive with PI who aided and pushed rather than berated peoples failures. In contrast the post-doc lab was much more dysfunctional with too many over abundant egotist where PI felt such competitive natures helped spur on people rather than actually promoted the divisiveness and watch your back syndrome that existed (some people did seem to thrive but not ones I would ever wish to trust).

      The original Reddit poster mentioned lack of team interactions, which often is weak for PHDs groups since most researchers engage in individualistic projects, however can still share a commonalty of purpose and support of others around you that again was prevalent in my PHD lab but severely lacking where did post-doc.

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  8. I stayed positive by remembering the reason I went to graduate school in the first place: I wanted to perform novel research to generate new information and add to the collective of human knowledge. It also helped that once I went down the literature rabbit hole to a summary of conference presentations from 1889, published in German. We don't know now how what we did will be used in the future, but it will surely be in ways we cannot foresee.

    And yes, choice of adviser is perhaps the most significant factor for sanity in graduate school. Every grad student should vet a professor and group before joining. As a community we should emphasize this to all potential graduate students. With the administrative organization there are few options, but socially there is lots that can be done. As Anon 10:07 said above, if a professor cannot attract new students/post docs, then the group will lose prominence and the a**hole will have less and less power.

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  9. I think the key to happiness in chemistry is the same as happiness anywhere else. There are jerks in every field.

    1) Develop a circle of friends/acquaintances separate from work or the university.

    2) Get a dog who will greet you as soon as you get home.

    On #1, the only truely happy people in the research group I was in were the two who had an active religious faith and would spend the weekend with their friends from that circle and rarely worked Saturday and never on Sunday. In the group they would vent about our advisor's insanity just as much as everyone else, but they had that air of "they'll get theirs" when the time comes and thus things more easily rolled off their backs.

    We had a postdoc friend who was once a HS chemistry teacher before trying the law school road and finally the PhD route and she liked to say that there are a**holes in every area of work but that we feel it more in pure science because the last 3 generations of Americans have been brought up to believe that all scientists are Mr. Spock, perfectly logical and passionless. But since there are no Vulcans on planet earth, it is only when we get to grad school that we realize all scientists are jerkish humans after all.

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  10. Although not always easy to consistently execute I would suggest the person simply rise above the noise and garbage that surrounds them and indeed focus on the chemistry/work to finish the degree with reward of move on out of the environment (Self-motivation positively fixed on achieving goal). Sounds like they are carrying significant past baggage and likely must deal with people that disturb or disrupt them but in truth that is often what happens in real life whether in grad school, where can appear to be magnified, or out in industry job. Not sure one must "challenge" the status quo unless particularly egregious to ones self or others but doesn't mean have to participate and continue to allow or perspective as acceptable. Heck being it is grad school there is an "end" that should be in sight so focus efforts on that ignoring those who drag you down or circumventing anyone who greatly impedes progress.

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  11. This: There is a rather popular Nobel Prize winning professor that likes to describe himself by saying, "Kinetically, I'm an asshole. Thermodynamically, I'm a nice guy."

    Is pretty good. Scotty Bowman's players hated him also, until they put on their Stanley Cup rings. I don't think being an a-hole is a prerequisite to being highly successful, but a good % of ppl I've worked for you did great things were.

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    1. Yes, there are lot more people who act like Bowman and don't deliver than act like him and do - being a nutweasel may be necessary to be successful but isn't sufficient.

      At some point, tolerability and fit are important. Choosing a high-powered person may help if you have a lot of experience and know what you want, and the crap may be tolerable under those circumstances. If you aren't sure what you want to do or don't have so much experience, you may get squished, or driven into places you don't want to be. (I am assuming that they are honest but a-holes rather than potentially dishonest - I don't think a dishonest environment is ever a good idea, however successful it might be.)

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  12. 5th year PhD.
    Something out of my logic as in Europe (and especially in France where I am), PhD (or Doctorat as we call it) is a 3 year challenge !

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  13. There are many many things much more difficult than finishing up a chemistry Ph.D. and many many things you might enjoy to the point that chemistry is no longer the one and only path. Once I found out these two, I had a much better experience through perspectives, even though my relationship with adviser is still a bit sour to date. But my postdoc adviser is a nice guy, and oh well, worked out

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