Thursday, September 11, 2014

Post #6 Control Your Image (Social vs. Reality) - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

You had one job!
I am not a big "image" guy. I wasn't someone who cared too much about my appearance (I can rock a flannel shirt with the best of them). I certainly didn't care much what people thought. Okay, not entirely true. I cared what people thought, I worked very hard to please people and to make them think I was a hard worker, trustworthy, etc. Basically I tried my best to be a great person and I wanted people to see that. What I should clarify, is that I was horrible at self-promotion. Probably like most people, especially true for most graduate students who work in the life sciences, or any science for that matter. 

I will paraphrase a Jack White quote; I don't necessarily feel like you deserve to know shit about me. I am a private person. That lack of presence makes it easy for people to fill in the blanks however they want.
Jack White's Recording Studio - Very cool.
The Microbiology Department at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science was extremely homogeneous. The other issue was, the tenured faculty that were there had zero cache. They weren't remotely up to date on research, or life outside of their four-walled office. 

A student such as myself, who liked to get involved with organizations, who liked to be social, who liked to be athletic and be involved with intramural sports was constantly looked down upon because I was "distracted". No way could I possibly be a good student, or a good researcher if I was spending time on these other "foolish pursuits". I completely understand that there is a line. I do know some students who spent way too much time outside the lab, or when they were in the lab, they were using it as a home office. I know a lot of graduate students (and faculty) that are poor at time management and have terrible organizational skills. I am by no means perfect. But if I can be in the lab 8+ hours every day (and weekends), publish multiple first author and middle author papers, mentor numerous summer students, go the the gym, play intramural football, etc. all while being a good researcher, then what is the problem? 


Haters gonna hate.


This led to inevitable problems. To this day (two-plus years after finishing my PhD) when people ask me "how's it going" I still have to fight the urge to put my head down and respond with a brusque "busy".

This concept is currently somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Numerous articles or opinion pieces on the work-ethic/culture in this country have suggested that a "cult of busy" exists, and is unhealthy.
Examples:
  1. New York Times Opinion Piece - The Busy Trap
  2. Lifehacker - How to Escape the Cult of Busy
  3. Worksmart - Why You Need to stop Bragging About How Busy You Are
The culture of busy was instilled in us students at RFUMS in the Microbiology department. There wasn't supposed to be breaks, vacations, or weekends. There also wasn't supposed to be lives, hobbies, significant others, etc. 


I have quoted the line before, but our Department Chair told us graduate students (four males) at the start of our second year "Keep your balls in the freezer, graduate school is no time for relationships." 


This was the culture of busy that was instilled in us. It always bothered me. I couldn't help but think of the great stories about great moments in science that were thought up on a night at the pub, or when Kary Mullis thought up PCR when driving down the California coastline one night. 
If you have questions, use the comments section below!
Numerous people talk about how they have their best ideas in the shower, or when they are gardening etc. Scientists need to relax, it isn't healthy to constantly work or to be constantly, actively thinking about their product. You need to reset, refocus, find your zen, whatever you want to call it sometimes things click into place when you aren't so focused.

This is where the image control comes in. How do you do these things, when your "higher-ups" don't condone them?

I don't know. That is the best answer I have. I hid. I blended in. I blocked or hid everyone on social media. I went silent. I didn't give them anything. That strategy didn't work, and it goes back to the Jack White quote. People filled in whatever they thought since I wasn't giving them any information.
I think what can work is; 1. Not going into a lab or department where this is an issue. 2. If you must, or already are in the situation, get out in front of it. 
  1. Brag about how much you love the lab, your project, your lab mates, everything. Positive spin as much as possible.
  2. Bring up your project or science anytime you are in a conversation.
  3. Talk about how much you love science.
  4. Be a nerd about everything, about the school, about the department, about your project, etc.
  5. Drink the Kool-Aid, or at least pretend as best you can.
  6. Give people something to hang onto, but not too much. For example, when people ask what you do outside the lab, have some hobby that is respectable or understandable. I played sports, had friends and went to bars and concerts, etc. My adviser and department chair were of a different cultural background and had no understanding of my behavior. Initially, I should have told them I like to run, or garden, or photography, or play piano. That's it. Keep it simple, keep it limited to something they can respect, but maybe don't themselves do. 
  7. Don't discuss how much fun you have with your friends or family. Don't discuss how much you drank last weekend, or how you watched football all day. Don't say that you went to a baseball game, or spent the day at the beach. People will resent you, as I said above; haters gonna hate. You can flaunt it all you want, but in most situations, be prepared for the consequences. Department chairs who say things like "You are lucky I am giving you time off to go home for a funeral" or the "balls in the freezer" quote, aren't playing. Don't tempt them by showing them your amazing day at the beach. They hate joy, fun, and all things good and they are out to crush your soul. (Slight exaggeration...maybe.)
Gus Presser - Livin'
Above is a picture of an alternative mindst. You can just say "screw it" and do your thing, justify it by saying "those people don't know me, they don't control me, as long as I am getting my work done, they can't punish me, etc." Sometimes they do though. I have seen a lot of PhD students not finish, for various reasons, but some of them were precisely because they didn't understand that if they upset the wrong person, they would lose.





  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
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