Tuesday, 30 September 2014

How far we've come

This past weekend I was at the wedding of one of my best friends. We met in graduate school. She helped me find a flat before I even arrived in North America. She picked me up at the airport and helped me move in. But most importantly, she was an out lesbian in the department. She had blazed the trail I would follow, and by her presence and actions, made my life as an only recently out gay man less difficult, and less lonely.
She and her wife married, surrounded by friends and family, at a beautiful, touching, fun and definitively ORDINARY wedding. How far we'd come from our tumultuous days only seven years ago. Same sex marriage was not legal in Maryland back then, DOMA and DADT were still in place. Our families (we both have old parents) were still grappling with our sexualities. WE were still grappling with our sexualities. Grappling with how to live honest lives, while protecting ourselves. Learning to deal with our fears real and perceived.
Many people from my graduate school days were at the wedding, including my advisor, which took me somewhat by surprise. He and his wife greeted my fiance and me warmly. They asked how we were doing. We talked about life in Ohio, about my job, about our futures. Again, an intensely ordinary moment. Later I remembered something that made smile. Years before, in my third year in graduate school, when my boyfriend and I had been together for about nine months, I was agonizing over a problem. The departmental Labor day party was about to happen, and as always significant others were invited. I wanted to invite my boyfriend, it seemed insulting not to. And so, my stomach twisted into knots, I went to tell my advisor that I would be bringing my boyfriend to the labor day party. I outed myself to my advisor at 5pm on a friday in his office. I was nervous beyond belief, even though I knew my friend had brought one of her girlfriends to the labor day party years before. She was not his student, I thought, maybe he would react differently.
My advisor's reaction was splendid. He simply asked how long I'd been with my boyfriend. The next day, when we arrived at the party, he greeted my partner with "So nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you". Even though he'd only learnt of his existence the day before. We laugh about it now, but at the time, all I felt was relief. *
So here we are, seven years later. I am an out gay scientist living in rural Ohio. I have a wonderful supportive boss and department. We are planning our wedding with the full excitement of both our families, immediate and extended. The marriage will be legal in all three countries that it needs to be. We will have as much chance at happiness as everyone else, and we will be free to celebrate that happiness openly.
There is still much to do, yes. There is still no employment protection for LBGT individuals. Gay marriage is still not legal in all states. There is still intolerance, covert and overt. There is the tragedy of homeless LBGT youth. There is the horror of persecution of LBGT individuals in much of the rest of the world. Yet for this scientist who stepped off a plane in Baltimore seven years ago unsure he would be able to be happy as a gay man, who stood with butterflies in his stomach outside his advisor's office waiting to ask if he could bring his partner to a barbeque, who wondered if he would be ever able to legally reside in the same country as the love of his life for that reason alone, the change is breathtaking. I will take a moment to celebrate how far we've come as a society, and how far I've come as an individual.

*As an aside, even though the purpose of this post is not to teach lessons, this is why you must be pro-active in creating a gay friendly environment. Be inclusive in your descriptions of couples. Invote succesful LBGT scientists to seminars. You cannot assume your students know the department is gay friendly, and given the potential risks if they make a mistake, they will be cautious.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Well meant and freely given (mostly)

There's all out Generationenkonflikt in the science corners of the internet these days. And, as with many disagreements in life, it is couched in terms of money. Who has it, who wants it, and who deserves it. Nothing nice or pretty will come out of a conversation like that. I got very upset and frustrated. It is not a pleasant feeling to be judged and found wanting based on a collection of vague impressions about entitlement.
There have been many versions of this post playing around in my head. Initially, it was going to be all righteous anger, a Phillipique against the older generation. But I have long since learnt I am no Cicero. My righteousness sounds great in my head. On the page, it more often than not comes off as peevish. Yet the attacks felt too brutal to go for my usual spiel and try to synthesise the argument, take the measure of both sides and achieve some sort of resolution. When you've engaged in a multi day, multi post, hundred comment long bout of circular onanism on the stoic resilience of your generation and the myriad failures and frailties of mine, I am fucked if I am going to be reasonable. I had a couple more ideas, each more terrible than the last.
Finally, I said sod it. Life is too short to try to craft the perfect post for a bunch of internet curmudgeons.  Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the matter. Take them or leave them.
1) Life is hard. This is a truism. It is also mostly unhelpful. It gives neither advice on how to proceed with life, nor does it provide emotional support. "Suck it up, Buttercup" is not advice, it's a cop out.
2) No amount of being told something will be difficult can fully prepare you for the reality of that difficulty. Thus, people make choices with incomplete information and also, things like hope and self belief (stupid stupid people). Encountering full on quite how hard the reality of a situation will be will cause howls of anguish. It is unhelpful to raise your eyebrows and say "you didn't know?" I knew going into grad school that it would be difficult to hit my goal of a faculty position. I did not know quite how far away the goalpost would be, how small the opening would be, that I would be kicking against a strong wind and that the ball was made of concrete. Also, I managed, despite my best intentions, to turn up wearing ballet slippers instead of cleats (to continue this tortured metaphor). That was my bad mostly. It still sucked.
3) Most of my cohort are angry, they have taken to writing about this anger. Unlike previous generations that were limited to poetry slams and self printed 'zines, we have the internet. Thus, you are encountering a lot of this anger. Much of it comes across as whining. It is poorly written and badly argued. It is inadequate in its analysis of the problems. It is sarcastic. It is incendiary. It lobs verbal molotov cocktails that massively miss the mark. It attempts to lob verbal molotov cocktails and lobs verbal pina coladas instead. This results in a sticky mess. Then again, have you read any of the lyrics to Joan Baez songs? My point is, the arguments are uneven, there is dross. The anger is real, and you should probably pay attention to it. Or not, your choice.
4) Most of my cohort are terrified. This is more important than the anger. They are terrified daily that they may not have a job in a month, six months, a year, two years. They are terrified it will all be for naught anyway because they won't get a faculty career. They are terrified that they need a plan B. They are terrified that they will have to move again, sell their meager belongings on the stoop, end up somewhere they know no-one, without a car. living in student halls, through one of the worst winters in memory, at the age of thirty. They are terrified that one day, their partner whom they love and are engaged to and wish to spend the rest of their lives with, will say "seriously, we moved to Ohio for you, what are you going to for me?" This is getting oddly specific, but you get the gist.
5) Most of my cohort feel guilty all the time. We feel guilty for choosing a career that was interesting rather than safe. We feel guilty because we were in grad school during the 2008 financial crash and while all our non academic friends lives were collapsing around us we coasted through, We feel guilty because we left our families for five years. We feel guilty because our significant other chose a long distance transatlantic relationship when we went home. We feel guilty for accepting help from our parents when we didn't finish before our stipend ran out, and then again when we didn't get a postdoc. Again, the list goes on.
6) Most of my cohort take the postdocs they bloody well get. I had the choice between two, one that would have been career suicide, one that was great for my career, more than I deserved, but that involved leaving my family and heading to Ohio. Oh, and making my partner leave his and move to Ohio. The one that was career suicide was in Chicago, fyi. So I did all the right things and I don't grumble much. Can I get a fucking cookie please. And here's the dirty little secret (let's talk about choice, shall we?). I would have taken either of those postdocs rather than give up on a science career. Not because OMG science, but because that had been my job for five years by that point and I literally had no idea what else I could do.
8) A postdoc is a commuted sentence, no more. It is a reprieve from failure, but a distinctly temporary one, It does not instill you with confidence, nor calm, not a sense that you any sort of control over your life.
9) "entitled young people" are the kids I went to school with whose parents' had invested a fortune in the NASDAQ for them. They would ostentatiously point out to the teachers in class that they could afford not to pay attention because they already had more money than the teachers ever would have. Yes, I went to that sort of school. Reality check: these kids are correct to be entitled. Trust me, I know the grades they got at A-level and I know what universities they went to. Thirty somethings in precarious short term contracts working long hour for between thirty five and fifty grand a year, with no guarantee of benefits and no job security, are not entitled. No not even when they occasionally opine that they wish things could be better. At this point, we should all just agree to stop using the word entitled. It has merely come to mean "people who appear to want something I don't think they should have", and it's unhelpful. Also, please stop relying on anecdotes when characterising an entire generation. That would be a characteristic of the #allegedprofession, would it not?
10) Sometimes, people talk about money as a proxy for all these other things, because money is grown up, serious, quantifiable, and because our society is so fucked up we have decided money is only valid locus of political and social activism. So use your humanity.
11) It is not controversial to assert that an employer is responsible for informing an employee of their terms of employment. This is true for fast food workers. It is true for magical not-really-employee science trainees too.
12) My mother threw paving stones at cops and ran from tear gas. There were valid, important serious reasons for the May 1968 riots in France. But the main rallying slogan for the youth was a poster of De Gaulle' silhouette muzzling a French student with the tag line "soi jeune et tais toi". "be young and shut up".

My mother (who was an PhD student at the time) also tells the story of attending a symposium of the condition of funding for Early Career Researchers, asking a question about the provenance of funds, and receiving the answer "Ca n'a pas trente ans et ca dit 'je penses'". Translation " It isn't thirty years old and it says 'I think' ". Plus ca change, eh?
13) Yes, there are worse problems that being a postdoc, but it presents real problems none the less. To the three year old, failing to get up the slide is a real problem, and her frustration is understandable, justifiable, and worthy of our compassion.

I will leave you with two quotes about judgment and advice, because I'm pretentious that way:

Atticus: 'You never really understand a person [...] until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it' (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

Dream King: "And you, your actions have been rash and unconsidered. You will scarcely last another hundred years if you continue in this manner"
Thessaly: "I don't recall asking for your advice, Dream King"
Morpheus: "it was well meant, and freely given" (Sandman: A Game of You, Neil Gaiman).


Monday, 15 September 2014

Sins of the fatherland

My birthday this year will coincide with the referendum on Scottish independence. So forgive me if I make this momentous event a little more about me then perhaps I should.
I've stayed silent throughout most of the debate. Not because I have any delusions that my ill-formed and ill-informed ideas might have any influence on the outcome of the vote. The stage is already crowded with English people heckling Scots on how they should vote. More because I am conflicted about this debate. And mostly, because, as an English person, this debate has been uncomfortable.
It is difficult for people from outside the British Isles to understand that this debate could be so fraught. We are a small island. The Act of Union was signed before the USA became an independent country, before France was a Republic. Throughout Europe, countries have merged and broken apart countless times in the same time span that the United Kingdom has been persisted. Heck, Ireland has undergone more changes in that time period. It would seem strange therefore, that a Union that has persisted so long could conceal a desire for independence strong enough to break it now. Yet, here we are, with a vote that looks like it will be as narrow as the independence referenda in Quebec, despite the fact the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada are more obvious.
It is not my place to legislate on the validity of the Scottish feelings of independence, to argue about which parts of Scottish culture are true and authentic, which are reflections of recent political differences, and which are recent fabrications. I will say that nationalist sentiments of all stripes are mostly mythology of some sort. That is why historians have so little patience for them. I'm half French, half English. I have more than enough of that baggage to deal with.
This is, of course, where my discomfort begins. For, with the best will in the world, it is almost impossible, as an English person - worse, as a Londoner - not to feel slightly hurt by much of the rhetoric coming out of Scotland. The most optimistic, hopeful writings about Scottish independence, that avoid saying that everything will be better if we just ditch the English, still contain the implicit message that, well, England is doing a lot of things wrong. The worst, well, they fit into a long narrative of painting the English as the devil.
My first response to this was to highlight the unfairness of the political critique. Scotland is not unique having suffered under Tory rule; so has much of Northern England. Without Scotland in the Union, it will become harder for left-wing Labour governments to form a majority, thus condemning England to more years of post Thatcherite crisis economics. The fact that the Labour party has consistently failed to convince the Scots that it has their interests at heart is one problem with this narrative. The other is that it is not mine. I do not come from one of those parts of the UK ravaged by Tory rule. In fact, I come from the one part of the country that has consistently done well since the recession. When I talk about Wales or the North of England to argue a case for Scottish solidarity, am I not simply using that history as an argument to avoid, well, looking at the content of the Scottish critique of ruling class Englishness? Most crucially, when I point to mine and my friends in London's desire for a more equitable government, our disgust with the Tory policies, our hope for a better future, am I not, in fact, trying to hide my own complicity with the dominant narrative? After all, none of us have left London. None of us would seriously consider redistributing the art budget more equitably ("but the Royal Opera is so wonderful it would be such a shame to lose it"). As has been pointed out, it is difficult to take the critique of Scottish nationalism seriously, when what is being propped up against it, in all seriousness, is a jingoistic take on British history that would make Churchill blush with embarrassment. 
As I mentioned before, I am half French, half English. Until the middle of the twentieth century, both those countries subjugated half the world. French colonialism was horrible, and despite better PR, British colonialism was no better. For complex reasons owing to my French parent's background, I am somewhat on the periphery of the French power establishment (protestant background, and from a region of France often deemed insufficiently French). Yet my Englishness, with my central London upbringing, my accent that sounds like what you here from the green baize of Parliament, my private schooling, and my Cambridge degree, is pretty damned Establishment. And the Establishment has managed to portray itself as very close to the caricature it claims the Scots have leveled at it. In the end, my discomfort in the face of Scottish independence is more to do with the disturbing possibility that I may in fact have some of the traits of the cold, callous, dismissive, and arrogant Englishman of those narratives.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Great expectations?

"The job for life is dead; long live the job for life".
This was the slogan on advertisements a management consultancy firm had taken on the underground back in the late nineties, possibly early 2000s. I remember them distinctly as a teenager riding the tube. British advertising is a thing of wonder, and these ads tapped into the ambient Zeitgeist with dreadful precision. The changing nature of London's job market for young people was sufficiently topical that it had made its way into the mind of a teenage boy still at least half a decade from his first "real job".
"The job for life is dead; long live the job for life". A rebuttal to a debate that was occupying the op-ed columns of the broadsheet newspapers. An attempt to make the uncertainty of job prospects for young graduates into an opportunity. A warning that things had changed. Nearly 20 years ago, yet it could have been written yesterday.
I had a long conversation with a friend of mine today. He's several years older than me, a late genXer where I am an early millennial. He's Californian, but has lived in the UK for nearly ten years. I've now lived in the US for nearly six. We regularly trade notes on each other's countries, attempting to help each other understand their idiosyncrasies. You can live in a place many years as an adult, yet still find its inhabitants hard to understand sometimes. Today he helped me realise something: part of that is due to the emotional impact of formative experiences from youth which shape what people come to expect from life, what they do. And here, I think, lies a major faultline in how American and British young people view the world.
There is much talk of the entitlement of the millennial generation in the US from Boomers and gen X ers. Conversely, Millennials will regularly point out that their start in life is hard, burdened with student debt and the worst job market in living memory. I have little patience for older generations berating younger. Historically, it's not generally a position that has shown itself to have much merit. Each generation comes to being with certain expectations and certain baggage, and deals with it as best it can. My mother's (late greatest) generation faced challenges I can barely imagine, but benefited from an economic miracle I will never experience. My brother and sister (late gen X ers) benefitted from a welfare state far more generous that I will, yet have had the middle of their careers hard hit by the financial crash. Me? I grew up in a globalised world, trained and poised to take advantage of all that had to offer. Yet I would have no security. Ever. I would have to be permanently on the move, getting better, hunting new opportunities. No rest, no relaxation. I learnt that lesson before I ever went to university, looking at those posters on underground carriages, learning what my professional life would be. Precarity framed as opportunity for growth, again, and again, and again.
The UK when I was growing up was in its post Thatcherite heyday. New Labor, Cool Britannia, Britain relevant on the world stage again. What the past few years have laid bare was how much of a sham that all was. Long term observers had noted it: the manufacturing regions ravaged by decades of failed industrial policy before being brutally culled by Thatcher never recovered. Instead, something else was created, a place that has virtually become synonymous with everything that's wrong with the UK today: London. And those adverts I mentioned were the ethos of the city I grew up in. Hustle, hustle every day all the time. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to build.
London's post thatcherite growth had never been predicted by her government, nor the sudden explosion of the UK financial sector, driven by a glut of foreign capital from increasingly unsavory locations. I suspect now that, in the aftermath of the winter of discontent and the destruction of most of the country's economy, the attitude that developed in London was one of Post apocalyptic survival. We had somehow made it out. In fact we were doing better than ever, Yet, deep down, we knew this was down to luck, and we suspected it would not last. After all, everyone else was screwed, when would the other shoe drop?
Thus, when I went to university, I already knew that I was playing a game. I knew the odds were stacked against me. I knew the name of my university was my way of stacking the deck back in my favor. I expected nothing from the world of employment (when I went there after my masters), other than a paycheck that would be insufficient to let me live. And I suspect that teenagers in the rest of the country, who didn't even have the fever dream of finance doped London to look to, were even more cynical.
What I have come to realise is that I don't think anything as traumatic happened in the US until much later. The dot com boom and the Asian financial crisis didn't eradicate entire sectors of the economy for good. Outsourcing was a more gradual process, rather than the traumatic destruction of the entirety of heavy industry in the UK in just a few years. Even the automobile industry in Detroit limped along until 2007. Britain's car industry ended in national ignominy in 2005, after an agonising decade long decline. Thus, an American teenager my age would never have encountered with such force the message I saw on that tube train.
This explains what I cannot help but perceive as a certain naivety from recent American college graduates. As they work for years as bartenders, baristas, and so on, as they are paid peanuts for short term jobs, or working unpaid internships for experience, they express a sense of betrayal, an idea that they had been promised more. To my 90's London upbringing, this seems hopelessly naïve.
In the UK, it was my brother's generation, graduating in the late 90s, who went through those growing pains, the certainties of an older world order swept away. My generation of young Brits has never expected anything from the world, other than a sunny slogan to hide a grim reality. In that way, we truly are the children of Blair.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The unspoken art of publication (why I suck at it)

My PI has set ambitious publication goals for our lab following the summer of data collection. Knowing her track record in the past, I have no doubt they are achievable. This is in fact one of the main reasons I came to work with her. For I also have no doubt I will find this just as difficult, if not more so,  than learning the technique of our experiments.
I've been doing scientific research off and on (at this point, mostly on) for nearly ten years now. The first piece of research for which I thought "I would like to publish this" was my master's thesis back in 2004. It wasn't published. I entered my PhD, after a 2 year break from academia, knowing that I should have three publications by the time I was done to be competitive on the job market. I never published anything until after I submitted my dissertation, and I still don't have three publications (one in print, one in press, one revise and resubmit I need to both revise and resubmit). So I've been intending to publish for as long as I've done research. But good intentions only take you so far.
My lack of publications has already nearly cost me a career in science. I was unemployed for just under a year after completing my PhD. As I asked about jobs, and for advice on getting them, my non existent publication record was always the thing that stumped people. I gave seminars, I led workshops, I presented at conferences. I got a lot of encouragement about my research, and always the same warning: none of that was worth much as long as none of it was published. At my first interview, the first thing I mentioned was that I had just submitted a paper. My interviewer's relief was palpable. In fact, my lack of publications was held against me even earlier: one of the comments from my unfunded NSF DDIG was that, as I had no publications, I was an unknown quantity when it came to research. At the time, I felt the comment was unfair. After all, I was only a third year graduate student. With time, I have come to see the comment for what it was: a warning to me from the reviewer.
If I'm going to make it in this gig, I need to understand why, despite having the intention to publish, I've been so bad at it so far. And I think a lot of that boils down to learning a set of skills that are specifically relevant to publication, distinct from research. Coincidentally, as I was begining to write this post, this very topic of discussion was brought up by the esteemed Drs Isis and Drugmonkey. So, at the risk of repeating what has already been, here are my thoughts on things I've come to understand have hampered my ability to publish.
I do not find writing hard. I don't particularly like writing papers (or my dissertation), but I write well, and quickly, and generally produce first drafts that are pretty solid from a basic readability point view. I do hate making figures (I really really do), but as I become better at using ggplot, that's getting less of an issue. Yet writing has, so far, probably constituted a relatively minor portion of my time as a researcher. Why is that the case?
1) Re-learning how to write. This one only occurred to me recently, as a result of the discussion over at Drugmonkey's. It struck me that learning to write collaboratively, to accept and embrace criticism, to be willing to submit anything less than your best work for comment, is not taught when writing undergraduate or high school essays. You don't get a do-over for those: no matter how constructive the comments of your teacher, errors in style, argument, structure, analysis amount to lost grades. Certainly in the British University system, one has no opportunity to have one's written work critiqued and fix the errors before marking. Thus, succesful undergraduates are the ones who have learnt to go over their work with a fine toothed comb and anticipate all possible critiques. It makes sense they will be prickly in their response to criticism: any thing they missed or overlooked is a rebuke of their hard earned skills. I know people will respond "but you're not undergrads anymore". To which my response is: you were there too once. Recognise the patterns and help the trainee unlearn them. For what's it's worth, that process for me started outside academia, when writing website copy. My initial reaction to being critiqued was not great. I've learnt, finally, to view writing as a cooperative exercise, to embrace critiques and view my drafts as suggestions. It's taken a long time to get there.
2) Knowing when what you have is publishable. This, I think, is the one that stumped me for many side projects. I simply had no idea what "publication standard" was. My master's thesis was probably borderline publishable as it was at the time, yet I didn't know it. My first year rotation project in graduate school, I was told, was unpublishable. Yet a paper came out just a few years ago asking the same question, using the same methods, with the same conclusion, though looking at a different taxon. Maybe my project wasn't publishable as was, but it was clearly a damn sight closer than my rotation advisor thought. This, I think, is one where advisors are crucial. As graduate students in particular, I think we tend to assume our work is sub par. It takes encouragement to realise that no, our work is decent.
3) Publishing what you have, not what you want to have. I submitted five conference abstracts while in Grad school. All had good data, most of which will be part of the publications I will eventually get out of my dissertation. Yet, of the ones that would eventually be part of my dissertation, I wrote none of them up as I went. Why? Because I had a plan for the papers I wanted to publish, and until I had all the pieces of that plan, I wouldn't publish anything. Unfortunately, one of the pieces of that plan didn't come together until my last ten months in grad school. Thus, I delayed publishing results that were publishable until after everything was done. This was foolish.
4) Don't worry that your paper will be bad. If you have spent time developing your hypothesis, if you can argue your methods, if you have done your background reading (which, if you have defended your thesis proposal you should be able to do), your paper will not be bad. It may not be the best. It may only be worthy of a society level journal. That doesn't matter. It will exist, and it will be OK, Don't worry about some journal club somewhere tearing it apart. And remember that, at some point, you will find someone who will demolish a paper you have held as a paragon of scientific integrity. 5) Do not seek "accepted with minor revisions". Don't, it isn't worth the effort, Trust me, I've done it. I much prefer the paper I have that was accepted with major revisions than the one that was almost accepted as is. I am excited about my revise and resubmit. Peer review, as much as it can be jarring, is an occasion to make your paper better. "Major revisions" is just another round of editing.
6) Speaking of which: find mentors who will read and critique your drafts constructively. Reach out to a broad circle of people. Thank each person willing to read your draft. Remember you are the author, so have final say, but give each commenter a fair and judicious hearing.
7) Middle authorships are important. My advisor in grad school had few side projects to share with me. I carried the weight of all my research and my papers. This makes me proud of my dissertation, but being middle author on a lab paper early on would probably have made me more comfortable about publication. So mentors: involve your newbie trainees sufficiently in projects that they can be middle authors. It's a great, low stakes way for them to learn the arcana of publication. And trainees: god damn it, ask. Find some skill you can offer for a project and ask if you can be involved. Get that middle author paper.
8) Seek out and be grateful for collaboration. Two people can work faster on all aspects of a paper than one. You must do the heavy work of your dissertation and postdoc projects, yes. It does not follow you must do all the work, and do it alone.
9) Don't chase glam. Your first paper should be aimed squarely at a respectable journal in your field. Don't sell yourself short, but don't pin your hopes on a longshot, not until you have a few good pubs under your belt. Again, a published paper in a decent society journal is worth more than a CNS paper in prep.
To mentors, I would say this: none of this is obvious to your trainees. Nor will they learn it by osmosis. Talk to them, sit them down, explain the process to them. Demand drafts of them. Give them drafts to edit. This is the very definition of tacit knowledge. If you do not seek to make it explicit, you cannot expect your trainees to know it,