Thursday, June 17, 2010

"it's like high school... but not really"

I recently got an email from a former colleague where she was ranting about her new PhD student, who has this concept that science is all about brains and "if you are smart enough, you can get the professorship and publish in C/N/S when you do grad work". She wrote me partly because she wanted to see how I am doing in my new position, partly because she had some news of her own and (as she stated) "you were always the one not to bs. Have any suggestions on an analogy I can use to explain the slightly bigger thing here? I miss your wit with a smile after the cynical statements".

ehh... although I guess there is something to it? Even if it just felt a bit like the "ask the lonely sometimes talkative, cynic over there in corner who makes some people feel a bit awkward".

The last few weeks have been educational, in some regards. Basically, I love the fact that most of us were brought up with the idea that "as long as you do a good job, you'll be rewarded for it". Well, my only beef with it? (not the only, but the main one.)

That the world doesn't work like that. (it's a great fairy tale though.)

Sure, we'd like that people who work hard and do a great job get rewarded. I mean, how would you get people to do that otherwise? (There are those strange people who take pride in doing an awesome job without payback but alas, we are mostly slightly strange and the odd ones out who other people tend to laugh at and make do their work just because...)

So, the plan is simple; tell all children that being a good moral person who works hard and strive to make the world a better place will be the thing that gets rewarded.

Well, reality check?! Not all that likely. More likely, the person who suck up is going to get stuff before you, no matter how good you are. Or, in science, the person with the best ideas might not go anywhere since it has to do with how you present the ideas, who you ally with, who gives you money and a whole lot of things that has little to do with your actual research/lab work.

And that, if you don't work in Academia, there is a great chance that the middle manager will be someone that didn't do their job all that well but since people couldn't fire them - since they did didn't do anything that wrong, they know the bounderies - they "replaced them" by moving them semi-up and to the left where they now can decide over others but hopefully not complain as much to the people in charge who were tired of hearing them.

Yeah. And I wish for was that I could've been taught this little story a bit earlier than mid20ies.... 30ies... what ever age it was, it felt like too little, too late you lovely idealistic stupid person who wants to do a good job all the time and take pride in it.

I guess it's just one of those things you have to experience to get?

Now, how do I phrase that in a less sarcastic and more positive way in an email?

Btw, Charmed has a nice episode about looking into the future and staring at your choices from the past... something to do with "not settling" and "all you do have consequences" and "you decide what you want to happen". Not much to do with this post really, but as I run with analogies and popular cultural references I'd thought about now. Maybe there's a rap song somewhere with phrases like "they're gonna try and take you down, you don't shoot but stare them to the ground" or something.... (can you tell it's been a while since I listened to the 'talk'... )

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Parental leave

Another of those articles in NYT, this time about the Swedish phenomena "parental leave". It's titeled "In Sweden, the men can have it all". I have to admit, it's not all roses and there is something to be said about the problems on being viewed as "the woman who probably will take 10 months off with pay" when being in their 30ies and looking for a job, but in all pales when faced with the realities of parents in other countries (mostly thinking about the US right now, obvious reasons).

Anyway, I have high lighted some things from the article that I find interesting.
"Among those with university degrees, a growing number of couples split the leave evenly; some switch back and forth every few months to avoid one parent assuming a dominant role — or being away from jobs too long. The higher women rank, the more they resemble men: few male chief executives take parental leave — but neither do the few female chief executives. "

"Eight in 10 fathers now take a third of the total 13 months of leave — and 9 percent of fathers take 40 percent of the total or more — up from 4 percent a decade ago."

"In Sodermalm, Stockholm’s trendy south island, the days of fathers taking only two months are clearly over. Men with strollers walk in the park, chat in cafes, stock up at the supermarket..."
This was one of the things I haven't thought about too much but was made clear to me last year while on vacation. My travel companion pointed out, a number of times, how many men in groups with strollers that we saw... all over the city... and on the bus... and they seemed having a good time and there was no women around these small children. It was indeed one important moment for me too. I clearly forget that my upbringing and traditions are indeed different than here in the South. (I'm not saying dads aren't involved here, I'm simply saying it is less overt and less easy.)

"Claes Boklund, a 35-year-old Web designer taking 10 months off with 19-month-old Harry, admits he was scared at first: the baby, the cooking, the cleaning, the sleepless nights. Six months into his leave, he says, he is confident around Harry"
I would think that most mothers are fairly scared around the baby the first few days too... but society kind of tells us that "women automatically knows what to do"...

But, all of this must cost money. What's the numbers?
"Taxes account for 47 percent of GDP, compared with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the European Union overall. The public sector, famous for family-friendly perks, employs one in three workers, including half of all working women. Family benefits cost 3.3 percent of G.D.P., the highest in the world along with Denmark and France, said Willem Adema, senior economist at the OECD."

This means, for regular people, that the income tax is somewhere around 32% (as a starting point for average income person) and rising, tax on stuff you buy in the store (alcohol and tobacco and gas excluded - these are higher taxed goods) is 25%. And a number of other taxes will add on. What do you get? Among other things (no tuition on universities, schools and lunches included in many schools);

"With full-time preschool guaranteed at a maximum of about $150 a month and leave paid at 80 percent of salary up to $3,330 a month, “people feel that they are getting their money’s worth.” Parents may use their 390 days of paid leave however they want up to the child’s eighth birthday — monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly — a schedule that leaves particularly small, private employers scrambling to adapt."

And then the last part, as I mentioned in the beginning, "Small businesses find it particularly tricky to juggle absences, said Sofia Bergstrom, social insurance expert at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents 60,000 companies. Worse than parental leave, she says, is the 120-day annual allowance for parents to tend to sick children, which is impossible to plan and which is suspected of being widely abused"

In general though, I wonder if it isn't the last comment of the article that sums up my own feeling about life and the ponderings about moving back. "Graduates used to look for big paychecks. Now they want work-life balance."

Remember, 5 weeks of vacation a year..... that's not too bad either. But sure, you will not be Rich and someone will take money from you to redistribute them to others. And one lands in the discussion that "it might not be great, but it seems better than the other side of the spectrum, at least in my humble opinion". And I don't know what I'd do if the US decided to implement some of this thinking for potential dads... and mothers... considering that where I currently work there is no fatherly leave, and only a few weeks of unpaid maternal leave, which I find appalling. Then we haven't even approached the strangeness of "sick child leave".*

*most of my experience with this here in the US have indicated that it is ok for many non-hourly people to just leave work in order to go and pick up a sick child... it's also sort of understood if one doesn't come in one day due to child's sick, even if it might not be mandated by the work policy... this imho is strange since it gives off an idea that it is ok to "sort of lie", not to mention that others have to pick up the slack. It would be so much better with a more realistic system, that allowed for both men and woman to take care of their children in an orderly fashion. After all, don't we want involved dads and women with jobs? (maybe we don't?)

Monday, June 07, 2010

happy update

I'll go with this; if you don't work as a post doc round the clock but rather a more "regular" job where you can both be good at work and have some kind of hobby (and some time to exercise) - there is a possibility of loosing a bit of excess fat, lower that high blood pressure and feel better over all after a while.

Yep. I'm bragging now. On a happy note anyway. As of today I am down under the weight I've had for a long time, I'm down a clothes size to one that I haven't been for many years and my blood pressure is a happy sight.

All can happen in a few days (or since New Years if we count the weight).

Now, all I need to do is dig through that paper - but I got some good stuff done yesterday- and I have some hope for that too.

Imagine, all this on a Monday morning. I wonder if that was the run this morning that made me happy? Endorphins and all. Ha, time to go to work! Enjoy the week!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

pondering over not finished grad studies

How you deal with stress, failure and other external factors that collide with your internal thinking is very different. I remember over the weekend when thinking about this "failing the graduate studies"* that it is indeed a difficult time hiring and choosing a graduate student. Some blog posts from newer PIs indicate that they think and ponder about this a lot. The outside world wonder a lot too, when hiring people in general, but I do think that it is worse in Academia since it is that link to "who you are, and what you think, and your worth" that makes the potential failure much worse than just finding a match for the work place. Seldom is the time when you succeed in Academia because you are great in the lab, with your hands (that would be the outstanding technical support or some specific skill set), most of the time it would be a combination of your lab work and your terrific ideas and the way you set up the experimental order.

For some people, failing to finish is enormously hard and it may lead to extreme outcomes. For some, it's hard but they brush it off and move on. No hard feelings, and they are happier afterwards. And for some, they are relatively OK with the whole outcome. (I need to emphasize that most of the latter example I have seen have been a quiting the graduate studies fairly early on, when the student feels that this is not a good match - professor, work or personal feelings.)

One of my first experiences with the drop out graduate was one of those very strange and sad outcomes and I think that might have shaped me into being a bit too much on the outlook for these things. It was a fairly odd case where the graduate student didn't want to acknowledge that they were not going to finish. That the professor wasn't going to support an extension. And the oddness when a work place does not know how to deal with a person not understanding (or maybe not playing by the normal rules) that if you don't get extension you can't go on coming in to the work place and sit down by what was before your desk and keep working. And how long you can keep this happening without someone actually telling "this is over now. It's no point of you coming in here anymore. You have to move on.". And still, the graduate student might come back a few years later with something written that they call a thesis and wanting to defend it...

It sounds so weird to people who work in a closed work space, where you have lock and key or key cards and guards and sign in sheets... In an open university environment without locked doors (not to mention when you can do much graduate work outside of the institution) there is just that much you can do to stop people from coming back into the work place and stroll around... (unless of course, you call the cops, but there is a hesitance to do that when it is a former colleague, who is non violent, a sort of non-understanding why they don't understand that they should not keep coming back. And it's probably partly embarrassment as well.)

I know that some people think I am too direct at times. It's just that if you have dealt with certain types of people you know that they hear a completely different thing from what you are really saying. You say "I don't think there is much more we can go. This project is stopping here". They hear "I don't think this approach is going to work. You need to go at it another way. There is still hope". Of course, most people hear something similar to what you are saying.

The whole delicateness of the situation makes it harder to be direct of course. The supervisor will most often in any case, feel a bit disappointed that it did not work out. The department might not want to broadcast it either. And the fellow graduate students might be too busy with their own pondering, fears and work to really know what to do. And all the time, people would be hoping that the graduate student understands and moves on... (like "normal" people would do.)

It's one of those situations that I think might become more common in times of budget cuts. I mean, it's easy to extend people if you have money... to hope that they might move on by themselves and everyone will be happy in the end. Whereas in times of shortage of money (and time) there will be more chopping and time limits.

Then again, maybe the situations I think about are just as common in the regular work space? Nothing that special about Academia apart from the hype and the superstition? And maybe I am over reacting due to personal experiences? I just think that once you have seen the bad outcomes of ruining the hopes and dreams of some people, it's hard not to take one step back the next time and ponder "is this going to end as badly as D or will this be OK?".

Most of the times though, I would think it ends in the middle. The graduate student is disappointed but will accept that in a few years (some time) they have found something new to do that keep them happy.

At least, on a day like today - I hope that it is what happens most of the time.

*I will call it failing in this post, since I talk about the specific situation when the graduate students wants to get their PhD, they want to go through with it, but they will not be able to do it. They will fall on the way, depending on various factors; maybe the professor, maybe the previous knowledge of the subject, maybe their work ethics... but they will see this as a failure and not a volunteer stop to seek out something else that would make them happy and fulfilled. There is also a discussion here somewhere about the difference in failing (to graduate for example) and being a failure. For some, this distinction is harder than for others. It's the identification with what you do and think and that giving you self worth, compared to who you are and having that value inheritable.