Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Fortune Cookie Advice - For Real

Since this advice works as well in the coffee house, tea shop, or cafeteria as in the pub, here's my post full of nuggety accumulated experience advice that I posted on the Prehistoric Pub, dealing with the pitfalls and the advice to (hopefully) avoid them in academia (with a paleo slant, of course).


I'm picking up a shift at the Prehistoric Pub today. Faces come and go, but if they are the faces of students starting out in paleontology, there is a look they all have in common at one point or another: that look when you jump into the deep end and realized at the last moment that you aren't as strong a swimmer as you thought. The look of feeling in over your head, feeling overwhelmed.

That feeling that makes you sit down and mumble to your confidant "I don't know if I can do this."

If that describes you or someone you know, have a seat at the bar. I've got some advice that I've accumulated from time, some experience of learning from dumb-ass mistakes, and some experience of learning from events that you simply can't control, and hopefully a way out of the seductive mind-traps that we all fall into.

Wine? Beer? Soda? Mineral water? Hot chocolate? The virtual bar is well-stocked.
I can only speak from my experiences, and the experiences of what I observed in student colleagues, colleagues, advisers, and mentors. All of my advice comes to you through my personal filter. 

Do what you love, and you will work harder than you have ever worked in your life.

If I could find the person who first said "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life", I'd give them a metaphorical smack on the back of their head. (This quote gets attributed to Confucius, at least according to goodreads.) More accurately, I'd give this metaphorical smack to those who use this quote to say that doing what you love is easy, while doing what you don't like is difficult.

I love paleontology. The exploration, the discovery, analyzing data, writing up the papers, telling the stories of the past of our planet to kids, the public, and colleagues - it's an honor to be part of the system that opens the doors to understanding our past.

If it feels like a difficult system to be a part of, it is. It takes a lot of time, a lot of training, and a lot of discipline to get into a position where you can start unraveling the mystery of the history. In short, it takes a heck of a lot of hard, hard work.

I was at a conference, standing around and chatting with colleagues in between talks. A prospective student who was interested in joining a certain lab had joined the conversation. Student started asking questions. These questions started to piss me off:

Student: "I know So-and-So-Grad-Student in this lab, so that will make it easier for me to get in, right"?
Us: "That's not how you get into a lab. You have to contact the PI and see if they are taking students. Even if they are, you have to submit your proposal and application like everyone else."

Student (persisting): "You people are clearly succeeding. What are your tricks?"
Me (rather irritated at this point, and yes, I swore): "Tricks? There are no tricks. This is hard-ass work, and I'm a tenacious bitch. That's why I've made it this far."

The others who were with me started giving the now shocked Student, um, softer good advise (for lack of a better word), but I was annoyed by this line of thinking. Clearly hard work was not first and foremost in this Student's mind. They persisted on believing there was a gimmick, a trick, a sham that made all of this seem so easy.

My wish is that I never make this look easy. I don't ever want to fool people into thinking it is easy. There is no innate brilliance that makes paleontology easier for some and harder for others. It. Is. Not. Easy. This shit is hard - hard to do, hard to keep the energy and ambition up to do it. Loving what you do gives you something to focus on when you're submitting yet another grant application, when you're rewriting that paper that got rejected again, when you're told by your funding agency that they support museums but don't support research. Maybe you've made a mistake that is now going to cause you seemingly endless hours of work to correct. Maybe you're trying out something new, and there is no clear path to follow. That happens. That love for your path is your carrot, the hard work is the stick. You can't have one without the other. Loving what you do doesn't make the bullshit easier to deal with - it just gives you a target at which to look past the BS. Do what you love, and you will work harder than you ever have in your life because you will want to make it work.

Who are you?

This next story makes me sad. The Student character represents several individual students I've seen through teaching labs, running volunteer programs, and being in labs.

I know this Student is bound and determined to pursue paleontology as a career, and I have not even spoken to them yet. How can I tell? Student has come to class wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, hiking boots, canvas pants, and a pocketed photographer's vest. They announce in grand tones that they are going to study dinosaurs, and scoff at using mammal bones in osteology labs. It's bones, after all. Student knows bones, because dinosaurs. Student receives soul-crushing 20% (or lower) on the bone lab, and, fighting back tears of disappointment, comes to the lab instructor all confused. HOW?

Here's a confession. I was that student. On my first comparative anatomy bone lab I crashed and burned, Chicxulub-style. I may not have had the fedora or the vest, but I was convinced that years of being a dinosaur fanatic was enough to prepare me for what it takes to be a scientist. Hell no.

Why does this scenario make me sad? I saw the same familiar pattern repeated in each new set of undergraduates. They are so determined to assume the mantle of paleontologist that they take an idealized, TV-promoted distillate of what a scientist appears to be and lose themselves in that ideal because that is all they know about the people who do paleontology. They only know what they have seen in the media, in books, in movies. These students have no sense no real sense of who the people they idolize are, and no sense of who they themselves are as individuals. Cosplay is all fun and games until someone loses their identity.

Make sure you develop who you are, inside and outside of the scientist realm. If you don't yet know, that's OK. It's a constant work in progress. An easy way to do that is start by a fill in the blanks exercise. "I am a scientist who feels/does/thinks _________." What's in your blank? Is it art? Jazz dance? Bar tending? Archery (guilty)? Martial arts (guilty)? Are you a bird fanatic (guilty)? Do you have causes you are passionate about? Great! You do not have to give up who you are or the non-paleontology (or science) things that excite you to be a paleontologist. They are part of your identity. Being comfortable in your own skin, quirks and all, will go a long way to helping you identify who you are as a scientist. Scientists are people, and people have varied interests. Be a person...

Do Unto Others...

...unless that person is a jerk. Do. Not. Be. A. Jerk.

All paleontologists are people. Some people act like jerks. Therefore, some paleontologists are going to act like jerks. You will encounter jerks. I'm sorry. It sucks to be on the receiving end of such behavior, especially if others brush it off as "Oh, that's just So-and-So. Pay it no mind."

There is no rule that someone has to be who you would classify as a good person to be a good scientist. There are no end of stories of people who have done good work, even brilliant work, and have been people you would not want to go to the pub with, be in the lab alone with, or share research ideas with. Some people are just jerks. It might be that they don't know they're jerks. It might be that they just don't care. Regardless, the outcome is that they hurt colleagues and students, building resentment and distrust in a community which is so much more than a sum of its parts.

Some people, intentionally or otherwise, try to emulate their jerk-heroes, or buy into the destructive culture of a particular lab setting. Here's a personal example: I interned at a (non-paleo) lab in my youth. My supervisors were two men in their mid-late 30s. The room in which they conducted my orientation was decorated with female porn centerfolds. It was also the room in which my temporary desk was placed.

I did not feel like I belonged in that lab. It felt like the supervisors were symbolically telling me this was a no-girls allowed space. It gave me a sick, disgusting feeling when they would look at their centerfolds while talking to me. I was horridly uncomfortable. I was also scared. I was scared to tell anyone because I thought I would get in trouble for making a fuss. I was scared that, by not playing along with this lab environment, I was not cut out to be in science. I was scared of not being accepted by the boys' club culture of the lab. Not only did I make it through the one day introductory orientation, I chose that lab to work in to prove that it didn't get to me, to prove that I belonged. I didn't want to rock the boat and call this out for what it was: inappropriate and unacceptable in a professional setting.  I thought speaking out was a weakness. I was so wrong. It is never weak to call out BS. Always stick up for yourself. Always stick up for people who are not in a position (or don't feel they can) stick up for themselves. Don't contribute to a culture you would not want to be on the receiving end of.

Here's some advice that needs to be emphasized a heck of a lot more than it is now: the ends no longer justify the means in science. The culture of accepting crappy behavior from someone just because they do exciting work is dying a long-deserved death. There are now enough people in paleontology that you don't have to suffer a jerk when you encounter one. And, in the event that you do encounter a jerk, there are people and resources there to help you. Don't keep it silent.

You do not need to belittle others, downplay their work, be jealous of them, steal their work or credit, or marginalize them to do good science. If you feel the need to do that to be in science, to be in paleontology, sit yourself down for a second and ask "Why am I doing this?" If "being the best" is your goal instead of "doing your best", it's deep self-reflection time. Take-home message: if you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of your actions, your actions are inappropriate. If someone tells you your actions are inappropriate, you owe it to yourself and the people you work with to consider that they might be correct.

...Oh, and if you are called on jerk-like behavior, DO NOT try to justify it as "Oh, I was just so excited and eager" and other lame-ass excuses. When people say that to you, they are saying that their obnoxious behavior towards you is justified because of science. No. Science does not need people who try to use students to access your data for a paper that they have not told you about, but are going to try to publish first (for an extremely specific example). Science does not need the person who is so desperate to be noticed (or is a show-off) that they belittle someone during the Q & A of their talk. As Andy Farke said, to quote the great ones, "be excellent to each other."

Who are you racing against?

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel as though you are "behind"? You're publication list is woefully small compared to that of a lab colleague. You were rejected for that NSF/NSERC grant, while your lab colleague's was successful. Here is my favorite: did you start your program before those people who are now Ph.D.s?

Welcome to the race. Except that it isn't a real race. Oh sure, there is competition for research money, for publication spaces, for talks, for jobs. Even so, one of the biggest morale killers is feeling and behaving as though you are competing against someone. (That feeling could also tempt you down the Jerk Path.)

I get it. It's likely the most common mind-trap I fall into. I've looked at people younger and better funded than me and have thought "I don't stand a chance against this. How can I possibly compare?" The honest answer is that I can't compare. No one can compare, because every person's situation is unique to them and them alone. The only person in your race is you. You have to find your own academic pace so that you can complete a marathon, not a sprint. Don't feel that you have to burn yourself out: there is a culture in academia that accepts stress and pushing oneself to the breaking point as some sick badge of honor, and it's dangerous. There are enough challenges in academia without approaching it with the attitude of being "better" than someone, or trying to "win". Also, do not buy into the notion, if you find that academia isn't for you, that you are a failure. I call shenanigans on that idea. You are going to feel loss and disappointment over a plan that did not work out. You have to rethink the idea of failure. If A doesn't work out, then that means you should try X. A plan not working is an opportunity (albeit a bloody frustrating one) to try something different. You have failed no one.

You are not alone in feeling the way you are. You are surrounded by people at all stages of their academic careers who have felt this way at one time or another. There are people who will give you advice. Some of it will be good. Some of it won't be good for you. You get to choose what advice you follow.

Remember the way you feel now. One day a student or a colleague is going to come to you and say "I don't think I can do this.