Adventures of a Postdoc

July 30, 2009

Cognitive dissonance

Before all you runners throw down your gauntlet and challenge me to a duel, hear me out.  I realize that technology exists, and that the right equipment does help.  But how much?  And is all this technology being used as a mere marketing ploy to sell ridiculously overpriced merchandise?  Case in point:

Runners will swear that you need to be fitted for shoes.  Stores have video cameras that analyze your run and determine exactly what shoe you need to buy.  There’s a few problems with this, however, as I realized during a recent trip to a shoe store.

First, they didn’t use a camera.  They had you walk 20 feet down the store, and just by using their incredibly gifted sight, they could tell how much you pronate (slight, medium, extensive).  Very impressive.  They then sold you the right shoe, which was “made” for your degree of pronation.

I am a skeptic.  But others claimed that they had ailments galore until they were fitted for the “right” shoe, and then everything was fine.  What was the control in this experiment?  Nothing.  If they were given a shoe without telling them if it was made for their pronation or not, I would wager my entire salary that some of them would claim it didn’t help (when it should) or that it helped (when it shouldn’t).  Cognitive dissonance at work – if you spend $200 on a pair of shoes, not including the insoles (to be mentioned later) and other do-dads, your brain won’t be able to say that the shoe is just “okay” – it has to claim that in order to spend that much money, it is the best shoe in the world and made specifically for you.  Then all is well with the world.

That aside – I recently went to the running store where someone I know was “fitted” for a shoe.  Not surprisingly, it was the most expensive shoe in the entire store.  Coincidence?  I think not.  She was apparently having mild shin pains after using these shoes (how can that be, I asked, if they were “fitted” for her) and wanted to get the insoles (another mere $40) that they recommended.

A pimply high schooler proceeded to pick out two insoles, and said she definitely needed the green one.  When I asked why an insole is even needed, when the shoe is supposedly “fitted” for her pronation, he (I kid you not) said this:

“The shoe can only do so much.  The manufacturer needs to make money, so they design the shoe to provide some support, but in general it will be flat so that it will fit as many different people as possible.  The insoles will provide a better fit.”

Wait a second.  So being “fitted” for a shoe isn’t doing anything.  They’re made to fit as many people as possible.  So why not just buy the insole and put it in an average shoe, one that doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars?  No answer.

I could go on, but my point is this.  Cognitive dissonance exists, and people will justify things to avoid the tension that is created when you perform an action that seems so ridiculous that no one in their right mind (let alone you) would ever do it.  So your mind makes up a story, in this case, that the shoe is perfect, to reduce the dissonance that exists.

Okay, so what’s the point?  As a teacher, we do this all the time.  Grade inflation exists.  UNC recently admitted that their average GPA rose from a high 2’s (C+ or B-) to a mid 3’s (A-).  That means the average student is getting  a B+ or A-.  Is that good?  We’re giving out false information to our students, making them feel they know more than they probably really do.  So what will happen when they don’t have the skills that students from non-grade inflating schools have in the real world?  They will either feel like complete failures when they realize they don’t have the necessary skills, or they will go through cognitive dissonance and make up a story – such as how it’s someone else’s fault – to reduce the tension that exists at the thought that their incompetence could be their own fault.

Many people say that grade inflation is harmless.  Why not give an artificial boost to a student’s confidence?  Because it’s doing more harm than good.  Teach the students the skills they need, let them fail if they don’t gain the skills, and do what it takes to teach it to them.  Any school that practices grade inflation is actually going through cognitive dissonance themselves – rather than admit they’re doing something wrong, they often claim that everyone else is doing it, and that reduces the anxiety of their actions.

February 19, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — mxc305 @ 9:13 pm

It used to be that everything you needed to know about life, you could learn from watching Seinfeld.  Now, it’s The Office.  Recently, the clueless and self-centered character Kelly was upset at Jim and Dwight for not remembering her birthday.  It turned into a silly grudge in which an even sillier gift (which she loved) made everything better.

Amazingly, there are people like Kelly in the world.  I swear, I know one.  Recently it was the birthday of one of the receptionists.  I personally don’t like birthdays because I get older everyday, and I don’t see the point in celebrating one specific day.  More importantly, I’m at work and feel it’s inappropriate to get paid to eat cake when there’s a pile of work that needs to be done.

There are people who are the complete opposites, however, and want the spotlight on them throughout the day as people pat them on the back and shower them with fake praise about how young they look or how the world is lucky they were born on this day.

So, I purposely don’t make birthdays a big deal.  Turns out that Kelly, I mean, this individual, was upset at everyone who didn’t treat her like a queen on her birthday.  I walked in a few days later to get some supplies and was given the cold shoulder and even told that some supplies weren’t available, even though someone else picked up the identical item the day before.

Why is this important?  I’m amazed at how much people in the education field put themselves first before the students.  Rather than doing her job and earning my praise that way, she chose to make doing my job difficult.  The whole reason our jobs exist is to teach the students, yet this individual prevented me from doing my job because she didn’t receive the glory she felt she deserved.

If you want to go into education, make sure you understand what it involves – educating our future.  It doesn’t involve surfing the internet while a line of students wait for you, throwing birthday parties while you’re being paid to help students, or making an educator’s job impossible just because you’re upset about something completely unrelated to education.  It means the highest priority is doing what it takes to teach the students what they need to know.  Period.

The Office episode ends with Kelly choosing the gift of an hour’s worth of sleep while at work.  The irony is, I’ve seen this person asleep at her desk at work.  Looks like you really do learn everything you need to know from The Office.

February 11, 2009

Postdoc no more…

Filed under: Uncategorized — mxc305 @ 12:45 am

I haven’t been a postdoc for over a year.  I almost feel like I’m committing a crime by not changing the title of this blog, but I honestly don’t know how to change it.  So, it’s going to stay. 

I’m going to add more adventures, though, even if it’s not as a postdoc, as the title implies.  They’ll be teaching-related posts that will inevitably tie in some of my postdoc experiences, so hopefully people will be able to get something out of it, whether it’s a chuckle or some deeper philosophical thoughts.

Here we go…

December 14, 2007

Too far in?

I started watching Dirty, Sexy Money on ABC because I grew up with one of the actors on the show.  Turns out, it’s a pretty good show and it’s one of only 2 shows I watch regularly (the other being The Office).

Incidently, my favorite character on the show isn’t the person I grew up with.  It’s Brian, the reverend in the family.  I like him the best because he’s not fake, which is unfortunately how I view most religious people.  He doesn’t act like he’s better than anyone, and he doesn’t act righteous only to do things behind closed doors that are not only immoral but downright illegal.  He swears, he has sex with his ex-wife, and he once told a little girl she’d go to hell if she pissed God off.  If more reverends were like him, I’d be a regular at church.

Recently, Brian had thoughts of leaving the churchhood after a series of misfortunes.  When asked why he was a minister in the first place, he replied he wasn’t sure.  He was interested in it, studied it, and what else could he do now that he had chosen that path?

If that sounds familiar, it should.  That’s how most people, including myself, end up where they are.  They choose something that interests them (i.e. a major) and that becomes their career.  Most people are unhappy with their jobs, but feel they’ve committed too much time and effort to start something else.  The saying that you’re never too old to start a new career…that’s bullshit.  There comes a point where you have a spouse, kids, car payments, a mortgage, college loans, and you wake up one day realizing you’ve completed a third of your life, if you even live to the average age.

So when do you throw in the towel and continue what you’re doing and give up on any other dreams?

I know someone who was a principal of a school, went back to school to become a dentist at 50 years of age, and is now contemplating going to Law School.  I used to think that he was crazy, but then I realized that doing something you hate for the next 40 years is even more crazy.

After a year and a half at my postdoc, I realized I can’t spend the rest of my life focusing on just research.  I miss teaching too much, but since I still want to perform research, I want to teach at a liberal arts college.  It isn’t a complete change of direction, but it’s slightly different from my original plan to go into industry and get back into teaching later in life.

Life’s too short and being unhappy at work was taking its toll on every aspect of my life.  I didn’t want to wait to teach at a liberal arts school just because industry pays more.  Some things you just can’t put a price on.  We’ll see how the job apps turn out, but in the meantime, I’ll be teaching full-time at a community college.  For the first time since I started my postdoc, I don’t dread waking up each morning.

I can already see myself in the next Mastercard commercial:

Gas for weekly commute:  $50

New teaching outfits:  $350

Reduction in monthly salary:  $2000

Waking up each morning and loving your job:  Priceless

November 18, 2007


Filed under: research-related — Tags: , , — mxc305 @ 2:23 pm

Have you ever performed a literature search, found the perfect article, and printed it out, only to realize a few days later that you had already found that article, read it closely, and made detailed notes in the margins?

If your answer is no, go through that pile of papers you’ve read and I bet you’ll find a duplicate copy of an article or two.  If you’re like me, this happens on a regular basis.  While this may make you chuckle as you recall the last time this happened, it brings up a more serious question:

How important is the research we perform? 

This has been on my mind for quite some time now.  I came from a lab that was highly respected and published regularly in upper-tier journals.  Yet when I think about it, nothing we did will ever save the human race.  The papers may get cited, or they may help another lab come up with new ideas, but is it (and other similar research) worth the billions that are spent on research?  Can that money be better spent on getting people out of poverty or educating our youth?

There was an article in The Scientist, one of my favorite magazines with talented writers, a well-rounded collection of articles each month, and daily news articles online.  It was called “An Economic Gamble” and asks a similar question to the one posed above.

The problem is that most labs are so desperate for funding that they will write anything in their grant proposals/renewals in hopes of getting a high priority score.  While this may seem harmless, it often means saying they will do something clinically relevant (i.e. help the human race) when in fact they have no intention of doing so.  It seems like a vicious cycle of agreeing to perform research to answer a question, yet performing experiments that may not necessarily have anything to do with it.  In the meantime, that money is spent on buying the newest computers, supplementing salaries, and funding trips to tropical destinations (i.e. conferences).

I used to laugh at every paper that included a line or two about how their study was clinically relevent, but after re-reading my publications recently, I realized I did the same.  As a graduate student, I justified it by saying that I was merely following my PI’s wisdom.  In reality, I only cared about getting my PhD and getting out of there, and as long as it paid the bills, I was more than happy to oblige.

Fortunately, my goal is to teach at a liberal arts college where I can still perform research, but it won’t make or break someone receiving tenure.  My research also has a very clinical relevance (obesity, satiety, etc) that would actually fulfill the goals of many smaller grants and funding opportunities.  I don’t think I’m more noble because of this.  I feel there’s a broken system in which a lot of money is being given to people who don’t necessarily intend to or are able to fulfill the goals.  To me, that’s the same as Bush (or any president) using money to fight questionable wars when there are homeless vets who don’t eat enough on any given day.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping that during my lifetime, I can witness a time when we all feel confident that government-sponsored research money is being spent as efficiently as possible.

September 4, 2007

How is the gym like research?

Ponder this:  Who gets the most attention at a gym – a fit, attractive woman or an obese woman?  While some might be tempted to say the former, I’d wager that it’s actually the latter.  Why?  There are a lot of average/attractive people at the gym, and many of them blend together.  But it’s rare to see an obese person, and chances are, they’ll get noticed and remembered by more people.

The past 3 trips to the gym, I couldn’t help but notice 3 different obese people.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice them, either.  One was walking around the track at a very slow pace yet was clearly out of breath.  Another was riding a bicycle, struggling to keep the pedals moving continuously.

The people I respect the most at the gym are not the attractive females with the perfect tans, or the muscle-heads who look around between sets to see who’s admiring them.  It’s the obese people.  It takes more courage for them to go to the gym and be the subject of stares and private chuckles than most people have, including myself.  Yet each time they go, they do so knowing they’ll stand out, and that they’ll have to work 20 times harder just to obtain a fraction of the results.

What does this have to do with research?  I chose a path in research that makes me feel like an obese person at the gym.  I worked 6 years to obtain my PhD in Neuroscience, focusing on animal physiology and behavior, yet instead of sticking with the same field for my post-doc, I chose to do something that was related to my dissertation yet in a field unfamilar to me.  I didn’t want to be like most post-docs I knew, who were an inch wide but a mile deep (i.e. they knew a lot about a specific topic).  I wanted to expand my knowledge and experiences so that I could be a mile wide as well.

So, I’ve essentially been that obese person for the past year, playing catch up regarding the knowledge and background that everyone already has, knowing that I would work 20 times harder just to obtain a fraction of the knowledge and results.  I’m sure I stuck out at meetings when it was clear I didn’t know things that grad students had already learned.

I could have stayed in my field and made my life easier, but I chose a different path.  Is it tough?  Absolutely.  Would I do it again?  Probably.  Most importantly, do I respect myself more for it?  Most definitely.

If you’re like me, and are considering a different field for your post-doc to broaden your experiences, ask yourself if you can handle being the obese person at the gym.  You’ll have to work harder than everyone else, you’ll feel inferior and feel like the world is looking down on you, and at times you’ll ask yourself why you did it.  But in the end, you’ll be rewarded with a broader knowledge, new experiences, and you’ll respect yourself more for taking the challenge.

The next time I see an overweight person at the gym looking self-conscious, I’m going to shoot them a smile and let them know that there are people who respect them the most.  I wish someone had done that for me when I started my post-doc.

July 6, 2007

The ultimate oxymoron: productive meetings

It seems like an episode right out of Seinfeld.

“Let’s meet on Wed around 3pm,” my PI demanded.

“For what?” I asked.

“To plan future lab meetings.”

“So, we’re having a meeting to discuss meetings?”

“Well, chances are not everyone can make it, so we’ll have to see when people are free, then meet later to discuss the future meetings.”

“What?  A meeting to discuss a meeting to discuss meetings?”


I kid you not, this is an actual conversation I had with the PI of my lab.

Meetings are a waste of time.  There are no two ways about it.  It’s not just the 2 hours you have to set aside each week, it’s the hour before and hour after when you can’t do anything because you don’t want to be late, and there’s always the chance the meeting will run over.  So that’s 4 hours.  Not to mention the prep time – reviewing data, reading an article, or (in my current lab) walking around asking if anyone knows what the meeting is about, to which you usually get a shrug and a helpless look.

My previous lab had 2 scheduled meetings – The first was on Mon at 8am, when we’d meet for 15 minutes (no, that’s not a typo) and anyone who had any major issues concerning equipment, animal orders, supplies, etc, had a chance to do it with all personnel around (techs, animal caretakers, grad students, postdocs, PI, etc).  This is actually a good idea because 1) it’s short, and 2) everyone is there so you don’t have to waste time hunting them down.  It may not seem like much, but try adding up the time you spend emailing/calling people, waiting for replies, etc, and it’ll be much more than the 15 minutes we spent each week.

The second was on Fri mornings, the infamous journal club.  It was set for 1 hr, no more, no less.  Why?  That’s plenty of time to discuss an article, and if you have important things to say, you’ll say it in the time allotted because you know no one will stick around after that hour.  It forces everyone to leave out the insignificant small talk and get to the good stuff.

There were no other planned meetings, except of course for things like committee meetings.  If you needed to speak to the PI or anyone else, you did it when you passed them in the hallway or on the way into or out of work.  It may not seem like a big deal, but the hours you save each week by not having meetings just for the sake of having meetings adds up to a lot of time over the course of years and years of research.

Has anyone really walked out of a 2 hour meeting and said “Wow, that was the most productive meeting – putting my research on hold was definitely worth it!”  No.  Chances are, those 2 hours could have been dwindled down to 1 hour, or not at all, and the important issues could have been discussed impromptu in the hallway or during a 15 minute meeting.  There are people who hold meetings out of habit, and don’t stop to think about the best use of one’s time.  If you can get something accomplished in half the time (or less), you’ve actually accomplished something before the meeting even took place.

Now that’s productivity.  And we didn’t even need a meeting to do it.

June 4, 2007

Science writing

Filed under: non-research-related — mxc305 @ 4:42 pm

I know a number of people who are ex-scientists and are now science writers.  It’s a fascinating field and following their adventures is something I think others would enjoy.


June 2, 2007

Quantity vs Quality (i.e. Publish or Perish)

Everyone knows the most important aspect of research:  publishing.  Anyone who says their students, families, health, or anything else means more is merely lying.

Which begs the question – when is quantity more important than quality?  It’s a trick question, as the answer should be “never.”  However, as we all know, there are plenty of instances when quantity has taken precedent.

There are many cases of researchers falsifying data.  But there are other “lesser” evils, although, like cigarettes, there really isn’t a “light” or “ultra light” wrong-doing.  Some examples include manipulating statistics, excluding data, or adding to a sample size to squeak past that infamous 0.05.

I know a lab that has an on-going bulletin board of the number of publications they want to have each year.  It doesn’t matter how it’s done – reviews, brief communications, full articles, as long as they get that magic number.  They include everyone on their publications, even if they did nothing more than read it in passing.  They split up studies into smaller ones if they’re not on track to reach the magic number.  All this while forgetting the main point – science is supposed to be about quality research, about finding answers to questions that need to be answered.

I came from a lab that taught me from day one that it doesn’t matter how long it takes – that my research will be replicated repeatedly to ensure confidence in the results, that sometimes studies will be done to provide knowledge without being published, that “good science” is by far the most important thing that will come of the lab.

I criticized it at first, but after leaving the lab, and now being a part of a lab that doesn’t hold those virtues, I realize how important it is to emphasize quality early on.  Too many labs focus on quantity and in the process forget the big picture.  It’s a shame because there are a lot of brilliant scientists out there who have forgotten why the got into science – for the love of finding answers and making discoveries that provide important information.

May 28, 2007

The chaos of not being a student

One thing I’ve realized since finishing graduate school is that there’s a comfort to being a student that I never realized, at least until I wasn’t one anymore.  For the first time in 15 years, I can’t check the box that says I’m a student and with it comes a few realizations.

Being a student (whether undergrad or grad) is very comfortable.  Yes, you have classes, organizations, exams, dating, etc to worry about.  But, you have a few years of your life planned out for you.  The same can not be said for when you’re not a student.

In addition to my research, I have to worry about what happens next – looking for jobs, where to live, when to start a family, and so on.  Your life is no longer a clear “chapter” of your life, which has an end that seems too far away to worry about.  Your life now has many more, smaller chapters without a discrete start/end, often overlapping, that require constant thought and action.

I write this as I’m looking for jobs – there is a sense of chaos in looking for specific jobs, writing cover letters, revising resumes, and preparing for interviews, all while keeping an eye on my contract that determines when I must find another job.  While it’s just a natural progression in life, it’s something that I took for granted while I was a student.  The end seemed so far away and everything was nicely planned out.

Maybe our lives would be simpler if we lived in 4-year time blocks, with advisors that guided us through those years.

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