Ah sweet bird of youth.
Archive for: September, 2014
This post is about first-world problems. I am not discussing families of four or more living on $30K/year. I am not talking about people who didn't finish high school. I am talking about people who've gone to college and chosen to walk the way of science.
There are people, who no matter what their salary is, will save money. They look at income and plan their outcome. They make decisions about what they spend money on. Some of those decisions involve family planning. There are people who make incredible amounts of money (1% or .1% -ers), who are in debt, over their heads, and living beyond their means. And of course there are people in between.
I once had a student who supported his parents while in college. He was the first in his family to go to school. He ran a snow plow/lawn mowing business and lived at home. His father was a Vietnam vet who was incapacitated. He was still the top of the classes he took with me. I imagine he didn't have much of a party life, and he drove a pretty non-flash car. But he graduated undergrad with no debt. We had a long talk about talking on debt in medical school, and about time budgets. I lost track of him, but I'm sure he's doing good and happy with it (still). I also have peers who are physicians, who are unhappy, who are up to the ears in debt despite earning what seems to me to be an incredible amount of money. I had one say to me "I'd like to quit, but I'm so deep in debt that I can't even think about what giving up this lifestyle would mean". At least she had enough honor not to think about declaring bankruptcy.
The people reading this are, by and large, not living in a third world country, where education is a function of socioeconomic class (although I know the US is not free of these issues). They are not living in a repressive culture where women are forbidden jobs, property, driver's licenses, education. I lived in Indonesia for a while, where, at the time, the educational system is wildly corrupt, and degrees were often a function of how much you can bribe people.
Figure out what you want to do with your life. Figure out what you need to do to be able to do it. If you want to change the system, go do it. I will support you the entire way. But meantime, stop whinging. You're not persuading anyone.
Hope Jahren wrote a wonderful op-ed titled "Science’s Sexual Assault Problem", which has been cited in many places. She cites the important study by Kathryn B. H. Clancy and her co-authors Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford and Katie Hinde titled "Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault".
Some of the reflections on this are very good. From Small Pond Science: (thanks to @PHLane for reminding me of this great blog)
A change in culture is required. That’s not an easy thing, but it’s critical. As is explained in the paper, it is the PIs that need to take the lead.
Ultimately, what causes a positive change in climate isn’t just a set of written policies. We need to embrace a clear set of values and priorities that guide on-the-spot decisionmaking at critical moments.
PI's can and need to set the climate in their labs. But, as long as department chairs, and higher admin, do not see the problem and won't support the PI's it won't work. If the top down climate (either through sports or through BSD labs) doesn't care, the PI's can end up frustrated, angry, and disenfranchised. My argument is NOT to stop trying and working (obviously), but that for me, it was better to run away and fight another day. My fights at MRU wore me down and sucked the life out of me. As always, there are choices to be made about what to do, what to fight and what not to fight.
I love science fiction. When in high school, I started at A and read all the science fiction in the Baltimore Public Library branch near my home. I read more science fiction than text books in college.When I was a teenager, before the current YA tsusumi, there were not lots of female heroes, role models, strong characters. Not just teenagers, when I was a kid. Science fiction, even back then, had some bright females. Women who weren't just accessories. Brave and daring and succeeding on their brains, not their beauty. About the same time, my mother told me I was the least spiritual person she ever met. I thought it was a compliment. I do not think she meant it as an insult, but a statement of fact.
My life over the last few years has been not tulmultuous, thats too strong. But it certainly hasn't been settled. People who were central in my life died or left me, physically or mentally. An illness beyond the flu took me out of my normal life (ie no work) for several months. And the usual stressful stuff of modern academics: a boss who despised me, problematic postdocs (its always the postdoc), and the general aging process of grey hair, droopy bits and aching joints.
One of the things I have turned to over and over again are my friends that live in science fiction novels. Its why I move all those boxes of books. And the bookcases. When things have felt particularly tough, I don't want to read new books, I want to read the old ones. They don't have to have happy endings, or even be particularly inspiring. They are just there.
Rereading some of these novels is good for me in many different ways. I can lose myself and remember how thrilled I was back then. I can feel and understand and remember what these books did for me 40 and 50 years ago. But I can also see them through the lens of now. Its kinda like those optical illusions where the pillars are both going into the page and out of the page. at the same time.
This weekend morning, I didn't have to go feed animals, collect data, or beat postdocs into submission. I pulled out a novel I hadn't read in a while. Its the first of a series by Dennis Schmidt, called Way-Farer. Its about humans surviving on a seemingly idyllic planet populated by a alien form refered to as a "mind-leech" that drives humans to unthinking violence and destruction. The Admiral leading the colonization effort was a Zen master named Nakamura who set up a quasi and modified for a scifi novel form of zen for people to survive. The set of four novels follows the colony over about 300 years, and through various stages of enlightenment.
As I reread this novel, I remembered that it sent me on a journey to find out more about Zen. In the end reading about something was not nearly as interesting or satisfying as reading science fiction about it. But the concept of satori (which is the title of one of the later novels in the series) has stayed with me.
Thi morning's insight is that I love where I am. I do not believe one must suffer to come to a place where one can love oneself and life. I am glad that I did the explorations of my youth, and glad that I did not take them on as a path in life. I did not live out all my dreams (which included being an astronaut - not possible for women in those days, especially women with bad eyesight). Its a little sad for the-me-that-was, but now, its okay. Thats enough insight for today. I have to clean my home today, and visit my mother, and maybe even contemplate how to torture my trainees.
Someone (can't find citation) said that older people do not become more forgetful. They just stop caring.
For all those who have views on including sex in your studies, here is the place to make them heard. This is the original Nature article by Janine A. Clayton & Francis S. Collins. Lots has been said in the press and by people we all respect. There are even going to be workshops.
NIH has put out a request for information (RFI) from the National Institutes of Health, NOT-OD-14-128, regarding its intention to develop and implement policies requiring applicants to consider sex as a biological variable in the design and analysis of NIH-funded research involving animals and cells. Responses to the RFI will be accepted through October 13, 2014 and must be submitted electronically using the web-based form at: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/rfi/rfi.cfm?ID=37
Educate yourself on the issue, and then let them know what you think.
This morning there was a NPR story on Postdocs. The story (and lots to talk about in the whole thing) made the claim that:
Whether she succeeds or not, she's part of a shadow workforce made up of highly qualified scientists who work long hours for comparatively little pay, considering their level of education: about $40,000 a year.
The NIH scale is:
The stipend for each additional year of Kirschstein-NRSA support is the next level in the stipend structure and does not change mid-year.
Career Level Years of Experience Stipend for FY 2014 Monthly Stipend Postdoctoral 0 $42,000 $3,500 1 $43,680 $3,640 2 $45,432 $3,786 3 $47,244 $3,937 4 $49,128 $4,094 5 $51,096 $4,258 6 $53,148 $4,429 7 or More $55,272 $4,606
- See more at: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-14-046.html#sthash.RiG1ZhsK.dpuf
Digging a bit deeper, from her webpage:
Dr. Vanessa Hubbard-Lucey received her PhD in 2011 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY in the lab of Dr. Fernando Macian. She did her thesis work on the role of macroautophagy in T cell activation, in collaboration with Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo. Vanessa was a recipient of the NRSA F30 pre-doctoral fellowship, and currently has an NRSA F32 postdoctoral fellowship studying the role of Atg16L1 after bone marrow transplantation.
So, first, if she got her PhD in 2011, she is at least 3 years post-degree, and should be earning $47,244 according to the table. Second if she is on an NRSA, there is no excuse to be NOT on the scale. In my maths, $47K is closer to $45K or $50K if you are rigorous about rounding.
And, I am glad she found a position in NYC. I am sure she loves The City. But $47K is a lot more than median salary in the United Sates right now. Maybe its not enough to live in NYC, but it is elsewhere.
This morning I woke up and realized I have not been taking care of myself even though I'm in a very good position to do so. I am not a single parent with small children. I am not struggling to make ends meet financially. I have tenure. But one's life is always relative to one's life. Sometimes my problems are first-world problems, and sometimes they are the real problems of living that every human being has just being.
It's a familiar story - too much wine, sweets, and computer games. Not enough sleep, exercise and downtime. The excuse is the same as it ever was: new job, teaching, lonely in a new place. These things give me comfort. I need comfort. But I am also at an age where I don't snap back the way I used. A week of increased exercise and sensible eating and a weekend of sleep does not put me back to energy and full of life.
What does this have to do with feminism? Beyond the "we take care of others before we take care of ourselves" meme?
For me it goes back to Virginia Woolfe:
'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction' - Virginia Woolfe
I need to step away from the immediate comforts, and find that room and be quiet in it for a bit. I need to listen to myself. This morning, on my way to work, there is a park, not just a park, a state natural area, a bog. I went there and took at 10 minute hike. There were spider webs with dew, and various plants in their end of summer phase, and mist rising off the bog. It was quiet inside and out. I looked at my life, and was very glad that I have moved. I was very glad for who I am. I was very glad that I had the money and room, both physically and mentally, to look at that.
I do not think that such would be easy, even possible, without feminism.
Feminism has become a bad word. I've given up lecturing on it. Explaining what was before, what still needs to happen in the future. Dr. Freeride hasn't, and the world is a better place for her. As we all consider how lucky we (and our sisters and daughters and partners) are to live in a place where education is possible, where we are not married off at 16 or 14 or 12, we need to remember the others who aren't. That is possible because we have, in some form, a room of our own.
Yup. Its hard. But no one held a gun to your head and said I'll blow your brains out if you don't get a PhD.
Life, graduate programs, the NIH, academic search committees don't care about you. It's not their job. It's your job. If you decide you have to live in NYC or Boston or San Fran, yes its going to be expensive. Did you have your head in the sand? There are other options: other grad schools, taking on debt, doing something else.
You're the best and the brightest? Sorry, that makes you the 1% only when you were in high school. But once you get to Harvard or Stanford or even the University of Louisville, you are not 1% anymore. You're in the middle of the pack. There is always someone who is brighter, someone who works harder, and someone who wants it more than you.
Why are you angry at the system? Did you not do due diligence along the way? Please don't say "no one told me". Crap. No one told you that sticking your hand in a campfire was stupid and would hurt. You figured it out. Did you ask the right questions? Oh, no one told you which questions to ask? Don't get me started. You decided to work on cancer research, or dinosaur paleontology, or human evolution? Yup, they are crowded fields. They are competitive fields. They are fields filled with BSDs. Did you talk to anyone about options? About probabilities and likelihoods? You think your skills forsaken & discarded by the system? Someone got hired. Were they better than you? Why should the system care about you? If there's room to hire one person, why shouldn't it be the best?
So what of the "system"? Did you realize that by going to the UK, there is probably a UK PhD who didn't get a job? Did it occur to you that you were part of the system pushing someone else out? You want to go to movies, watch football? We live in a world that does not particularly value scientists and research. Athletes, movie stars and the occasional brain surgeon make a lot more money. People will pay for what they value. Other than expecting the system to respond to you, what the fuck have you done to change it?
If there is a fault, its that we train more PhDs than there is room for. But getting any job is hard: a seat in a symphony orchestra, a salaried journalism job, a TV actor, a landscape architect. Postdoc or faculty - not different from those. The world is competitive. This has always been true, even back in the "good old days".
Yes, there is a glut, and there are lots of things wrong with the system. I do believe we are training too many. I do believe that labs are often too big and there is not enough space for everyone we train. Although, to be honest, I have had a hard time finding a new postdoc. But then, I'm not in a glamour field, or at a glamour institution or in an interesting city. Though the cost of living is really good here. And the science is superb.
Yesterday, on twitter, there was a conversation about how many grants are too many. Here is some of it (poorly pasted .. there was a lot more, but
Writing a grant is never not a good idea, right?
— Dr. Isis (@drisis) September 10, 2014
— Spiny Norman (@threadtangler) September 10, 2014
— Spiny Norman (@threadtangler) September 10, 2014
Lots more back and forth.
Last night, with a glass of cabernet, I sat down and wrote a long diatribe. Delicious. The wine. The post, not so much.
I think there is such a thing as too many grants. So did everyone else. The question was what is too much? I went on at great length. Nothing like a quiet bar with good jazz. (But remind me to do a post on inductive reasoning).
By the time I was home, I was exhausted. I reread the post and thought life is too damn short to be this irritated. with anybody, especially tweeps that I like and respect.
The justification and determination of young(er) people for doing things they think are wrong in others, or putting a line just on the other side of their behavior, is strong . I doubt anything I say will change that. And, fuck it, I'm too tired.