Sexual Harassment in the workplace – followup of #DontAskAlice

Some updates and followups for the bad career advice from science careers. #DontAskAlice took the internet by storm recently when an advice columnist for science careers responded to a question about unwanted sexual harassment by advising to just “put up with it, with good humor.” CLEARLY, that is not the way to deal with it.  Science careers has since retracted the “advice” and apologized:

The Ask Alice article, “Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt,” on this website has been removed by Science because it did not meet our editorial standards, was inconsistent with our extensive institutional efforts to promote the role of women in science, and had not been reviewed by experts knowledgeable about laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. We regret that the article had not undergone proper editorial review prior to posting. Women in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.

Phil Plait for Slate also provides a nice followup with his own advice, specifically for what role men can play in this type of ordeal:

But it’s important for men to speak up about this as well, so allow me add my own thoughts.

My advice is simple. Men: Don’t do this.

The keyword in “unwanted sexual attention” is “unwanted”. This whole thing could have been easily avoided if her adviser hadn’t done this in the first place.

And if a woman does ask you to stop doing something because it makes her uncomfortable, apologize and stop doing it. Don’t make excuses, don’t rationalize it. Just apologize, and stop. Listening to what she’s saying is critical. She knows what makes her uncomfortable, and you need to respect that.

How to piss off a scientist!

From Science Careers, check out the humorous list:

  • Make sweeping generalizations about scientific concepts based on one data point. Start them with “my friend knew this guy …” or “once I heard someone say on the bus …”.
  • Ask what the scientist is working on. When the scientist responds, immediately zone out. There, that feels better.
  • Make important equipment unavailable for a petty logistical or political reason. “Sorry,” you’ll tell a scientist, “I know you need to use that instrument, but the Highly Arbitrary University Office of Too Many Administrators has instituted Unnecessary Form 722A-01, which you can’t fill out until you’ve finished the Completely Irrelevant Online Training Seminar, which requires a Creepy Background Check at the Obscure Basement Office You Can’t Find, That Doesn’t Understand What You Do, And Is Always Closed. But you can’t do any of this, because Rival Grumpy Professor is in charge of the program and is still upset that someone in your lab gave someone in his lab herpes in 1977.”
  • Tell the scientist you’re kind of a scientist yourself because you watched an episode of Cosmos and part of Shark Week.
  • Move their beaker off the stir plate.
  • Give the scientist an unimportant-sounding title, like associate research fellow or postdoctoral technician. Apart from pissing off the scientist, this has the added advantage of keeping the scientist’s college friends content that they made more intelligent career decisions than the scientist did.
  • If you’re the scientist’s spouse, say something like, “You know what would be great? If your lab would let you work part time. Do you think they’d let you do that?”
  • Assign the scientist to mentor a series of thoughtless, pretentious, disinterested high school students whose parents work in the next building. Good morning, Madison and Caleb. Can you please finish your Starbucks coffee in the hallway? Can you please not touch that instrument? Can you please—no, I’m not on Tinder. No, I don’t have time to watch a Vine video of your buddies doing parkour. What do you mean you’re going home for the day? You’ve only been here half an hour. What do you mean you want a reference letter?
  • Suggest that vaccines cause paper cuts, that global climate change is a result of lesbian weddings, that the Earth is 239 years old, and that evolution can’t be real because look how goofy this sloth is.
  • Require PIs to find meaningful employment for all postdocs leaving their labs. Panera Bread doesn’t count, not even the management track.
  • Call a scientist with a Ph.D. “Mr.” or “Ms.” If they kindly correct you and say, smiling, “Heh, technically, it’s ‘Dr.,’ ” ask to see their medical license, and then instruct them to Google “average medical doctor salary.”
  • Stand on the scientist, unzip your fly, and go for it. (Read the title of this article out loud a few times—there, now you understand.)
  • Let the scientist watch while you ask an average ninth grader to add one-digit numbers without a calculator.
  • Invite an unassailable seminar speaker—someone with clout, tenure, or just a personality more assertive than most scientists (which doesn’t take much). Ask this person to present nonsensical results based on a bombastic and misinformed theory. Force the scientists to applaud. Forbid snarky questions.
  • When asked to review a scientist’s publications, take full advantage of your anonymity and reject them for reasons that make the scientist say, “Wait, what?” For example, if a paper used a sample size of 100 subjects, write something like, “The sample size should have been >50 subjects!” Wait, what?
  • Tell the scientist the day before the new semester begins that he or she has to teach a large section of a new class designed to bring communications and geography majors up to speed on basic quantum thermodynamics. Provide no educational resources, teaching assistants, or additional salary. Spread a rumor that the class is an easy “A” and that the professor will happily admit new students at any point during the semester.

If the scientist isn’t pissed off yet, don’t worry; there are still plenty of beakers to move, stir plates to commandeer, and arbitrary intellectual barriers to construct. Because that’s what pisses off scientists most of all: taking away their ability to freely ask and answer questions.

Also, decaf coffee.

My PhD will last… how long??

As someone who has just completed the PhD process, I can say I really relate to this piece.  From Science Careers, a thoughtful analysis on the PhD timeline… or rather, the indefinite length of the timeline.

It’s hard for some to comprehend because most graduate and professional programs—especially master’s degrees but also medical school, law school, and business school—have a defined end date, just like colleges. Yet, in most Ph.D. programs, you graduate at some nebulous time in the future. You graduate when, in the opinion of your interest-conflicted adviser, “you’re ready.” You graduate when your adviser gets sick of you, needs the space, or has a whim. You graduate because you’ve been there 8 years, and your adviser now believes you don’t actually deserve a Ph.D., but it would look bad for him or her to admit it at this point.

You graduate because a grant is running out, or you don’t graduate because a grant isn’t running out. An experiment fails, and you stay another year. A journal accepts your paper, and you can leave a year sooner. Your lab relocates, and you’re kicked out early—or your lab relocates, and you join another lab, effectively starting over. Your graduation, in other words, like many aspects of life, is determined not by your accomplishments but by an inscrutable set of circumstances over which you have little control.

But you’re thwarted by the fact that, for a Ph.D. program, there are no graduation criteria. Yes, your department may require a certain amount of coursework, most of which you probably finished during your first few years (despite the university somehow still justifying continuing to charge you tuition). But it’s not just coursework. It’s coursework-plus-whatever, and “whatever” is subjective, hazy, arbitrary, capricious. A Ph.D. program, therefore, occurs on a theoretically infinite time scale

I can understand the rationale for many of grad school’s lamentable qualities. Long hours aren’t fun, but they’re productive. Low stipends aren’t something to celebrate, but if you say the words “finite resource” and cover my eyes when I walk past the beautiful new athletic center and the university president’s mansion, at least I know what you’re trying to convey.

But what’s the advantage of keeping graduation dates and requirements mysterious? I just don’t get it. And I don’t think it has to be that way.

The entire post is worth a read, and definitely something that resonates with all PhD students!

Same problem, different day #PostDocStruggle

Summarized in Science Careers, a new report on the postdoctoral training system covers familiar ground.  As we’ve mentioned before (here), the current set-up for training postdocs is incredibly flawed.  The report, out in the U.S. National Acadamies press, highlights similar topics:

The postdoc experience in the United States continues to need significant reform, the report states. Only a minority of the postdocs working in university labs have opportunities to receive high-quality training from eminent senior researchers, develop their own research ideas, gain experience in lab management and grant writing, acquire contacts and a publication record and, ultimately, move into a tenure-track position at a research institution.

For the majority of postdocs, however—those supported by professors’ research grants and working in university laboratories—the postdoc years generally do not provide high-quality mentoring, movement toward scientific independence, adequate compensation and recognition, or guidance toward establishing a permanent career.

The report proposes several methods to improve the system, some of which have been suggested various times before:

  • “Postdoctoral appointments for a given postdoctoral researcher should total no more than 5 years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances. This maximum term should include cumulative postdoctoral research experience, though extensions may be granted in extraordinary circumstances (e.g. family leave, illness).”
  • “The title of ‘postdoctoral researcher’ should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary.”
  • “Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for Ph.D. recipients, and explain that postdoctoral positions are intended only for those seeking advanced research training. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.”
  • “The NIH [National Institutes of Health] should raise the NRSA [National Research Service Award]postdoctoral starting salary to $50,000 (2014 dollars), and adjust it annually for inflation. Postdoctoral salaries should be appropriately higher where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate higher salaries. In addition, host institutions should provide benefits to postdoctoral researchers that are appropriate to their level of experience and commensurate with benefits given to equivalent full-time employees … [including] health insurance, family and parental leave, and access to a retirement plan.”
  • “Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral researchers to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through evaluation of, and training programs for, the mentors.”
  • “Every institution that employs postdoctoral researchers should collect data on the number of currently employed postdoctoral researchers and where they go after completion of their research training, and should make this information publicly available. The National Science Foundation should serve as the primary curator for establishing and updating a database system that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers.”

The proposals in the new report have all been made before. But circumstances have changed, and awareness and acceptance of the issues addressed in the report have never been higher. Whether these recommendations will have a greater effect than in the past remains to be seen.

As a future postdoc, all I can say is PREACH!

Postdocs not feeling the love? Consider a lab at MIT’s Whitehead Institute


John Bohannon announces for ScienceCareers that not only does the Whitehead Institute rank as one of the best places to be a postdoc, they might also make you feel better about yourself by taking glamour shots and promoting you on their website! The website is definitely worthchecking out! Makes me a little jealous… but good for them!

Postdocs rarely get much love. Considering that they’ve survived the ring of fire of the Ph.D. and still decided to continue with academic research, you might think they’d be more valued by society and their academic employers. And it’s not just the shortage of tenure-track jobs that causes postdocs to be taken for granted: Postdocs are often underpaid, and the work they do can be thankless and grueling.