Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More on Mean

I took the day off today. Friend picked me up at my local garage after I dropped off my car with pleas to make the “service engine soon” light go off. They promised to look it over and get back to me with what I was sure would be expansive lists and bills and awfulness. I sighed when I slumped in her passenger seat as she drove back to my house. It was around 8AM and I’d already decided today sucked.

We arrived and I hurried back into pajamas but replaced my shoes and socks to take Chienne for a walk. Along the way, anger built upon itself until I returned to my house, nearly enraged about anything and everything. But it was mostly directed at work. Leo, Mike, John, billing and committees and meetings.

“So what’s up?” Dr. Icing said yesterday as I sat in his office. All told, we spent an hour going over details. He varied between pep talks and gentle advice, grinning and scowling in turn as we went over problems – both professional and personal – that will accompany working with me.

“All sorts of stuff.” I said and he nodded briskly.

“I know. You’ve been busy. Things are building,” he made stacking motions with his hands, “and that’s natural and positive. But I think we’re losing sight of the goal here. So let’s start from the beginning.”

And I did, explaining and expounding and whining just a bit. I adore him – have every since the instant of meeting him – and consider him a mentor more than a collaborator. I’m not sure where the line is between being professional and being honest, but I probably tend too far in the latter direction. But in order to seek help, I need to share my struggles. I’m transparent when it comes to general feelings – I can only hold myself together for so long – and find that if people have some understanding of my situation, there is usually someone who will try to offer aid.

“Table that.” He said often as I got off track. “We’ll come back to it.” And so we slowly worked through the study - general aims to specific, logistical details.

“Why are you rolling your eyes?” He asked at one point.

“They’re mean to me.” I said simply. I had a massage yesterday that had wrenched the tension from my upper body. But a mild headache had turned sharp and I was starting to feel nauseated as a proposed 10 minute meeting stretched past an hour.

“Who’s mean to you?” He asked and I shook my head.

“I don’t handle criticism well.” I offered. “I just shrink under aggressive questioning and I feel awful and stupid and…” I paused to consider and he waited uncharacteristically. He’s very smart and he usually rushes from topic to topic at speeds I enjoy. I’m very focused when meeting with him since the conversation moves so fast. “I’ve never known that I wanted to do research forever. And when I expect people to be enthusiastic and helpful and am met with sharp criticism, I take it personally.”

“You can’t do that.” He said. Then smiled. “Internal criticism is the best kind. Or it should be.” He qualified. “We want you to succeed. I want you to succeed and be happy, and do really well. So any problems we see or questions we raise should make that possible.”

“But I keep hearing ‘that won’t work’ or ‘this isn’t right’ and without alternate suggestions, it’s hard not to feel miserable. For me, anyway.” I argued.

“Well.” He shook his head. “Some people have a bad approach. And you’re right to ask them to clarify, offer suggestions, be more positive and proactive. Let’s go over the problems specifically. Tell me what was said and who said it.” He suggested.

I listed the first one.

“OK.” He said, clasping his hands together in thought and smiling when a picture of his oldest son appeared on his screen saver. “That’s a good point.” He said, and I expressed my agreement. “But there is, as you say, no reason to shoot ourselves in the foot and not get information we might not be able to use. There’s also a chance we could use it and you can’t go back and get it after the fact. So, forget that problem. We thought about it, you’ve taken steps to address it, but we’re going ahead as planned. Next!”

I listed the second one and he asked a couple of questions before closing his eyes. He opened them to slits to squint at me.

“Again, good point, I guess.” Then he shook his head. “There is a difference between those who are paralyzed by problems and those who can create feasible solutions and consider practical alternatives. We’re in the second group. So forget that too.”

“OK.” I said and he smiled. “I know. I’ll try. But it’s hard for me.”

“You recognize that, which is good. And it’s something to work on. How you react, what you do in response. I was worried about you last weekend! You sounded like you wanted to throw yourself out a window. I'm sorry I wasn't at the meeting - I could have saved you from a lot of that had I been there. I didn't know you'd take it so hard. I am sorry - I was worried about you.”

“No jumping out of windows.” I said. “I thought about quitting my job and moving home, but not overly seriously.”

“Don’t do that.” He said, shaking my hand firmly just before I left in a desperate search for Advil. “We need you here. This is good stuff – I know it.”

I do have some follow-up comments on the series of posts of late. I think it’s an important topic for me to address on a personal level – responding to criticism – and I did do some thinking on the comments.

I choose to highlight dear RJ who commented here, who I don’t know but with whom I would be happy to be best friends. I do struggle with people who I perceive to be overly harsh. I also have some mechanisms to handle that. It’s gutsy to demand that people offer solutions. It is often effective. So that’s what I try to do. I’ll turn questions around very quickly and have no problem saying, “I’m not sure. Do you have ideas or suggestions?” If the idea – as some of you pointed out – was to offer help, then demanding that someone actually offer help is reasonable and admirable.

I would say that it’s OK to have different styles. Mine – when dealing with students or peers or superiors – is gentle and respectful. You don’t have to outrank me to gain my consideration and care. I think being sensitive allows me to take extra steps – and it is extra work – to try to ensure people leave meetings with me feeling good about themselves. Is it necessary for everyone to adopt a style that doesn’t suit them? Let’s table that for a moment because I thought of an example.

There’s a student in my graduate research group that keeps me up to date on her progress. She’s a bit cocky and annoying sometimes, but she hit her stride recently and is doing some good work. Though I’ve snapped at her multiple times (if you continue to ask for my advice then ignore my suggestions, then I find you doing jigsaw puzzles on your computer when you should be doing work, expect some irritation. I’m not a goddess of sweetness.), and think she has some work to do in interpersonal communication herself, I do consider her to be very bright. So when she sent an email asking me to look over a poster she was designing for a meeting, I was happy to see what she’d been up to.

When I wrote her back, I had a short list of problems with the work. Little things mostly, but a couple of slides didn’t read well and needed attention. Since she asked for input, I didn’t feel badly about going through and looking for errors. It’s part of the field and I’ve long since embraced the idea that having other people critique my work is the more effective way to improve it. But right before I sent my list, I decided to edit a bit. She’s had trouble with grant applications and has yet to publish a paper - she's seemed a bit down of late and I didn't want to add to that. I also know it’s nice to hear good stuff. So I added a “Oooh. Very pretty and classy. Nice design!” as my first line. Then a “Gorgeous diagrams. Very nice.” in the middle. And “It's definitely dense - there's a tremendous amount of information there. But I found it clear - especially when flipping back a slide to remember exactly what was going on - and quite impressive. I think you did a beautiful job! Yay for you!” went at the end.

It took extra time, but it was all true. The poster was very well designed, the diagrams were quite pretty and she’d done some really wonderful work. I could have skipped the compliments – I did skip them on my first read through – but decided it was good to add those statements. And it created a situation where she was proud of her work and comfortable asking questions and bringing up issues I missed.

My point is that intense criticism without an encouragement can – in some people, though I don’t think I’m in the minority here – create a sense of severe disappointment in a project and my ability in general. If something is so terrible, why put more work into it? If you can instead offer some reason why my past time was well spent, I’m eager to fix the problems and bring the rest up to higher standards. I’m also more likely to come to you with future questions as we’ve established that you respect my work.

It does take more time. And if you’re in industry or government work, perhaps it’s not so important. But I work in a training environment - a learning institution. I’m here to develop my skills as well as work. To expect that I won’t make mistakes and require guidance is absurd. If you don’t expect to deal with said problems, don’t hire students or post-docs. Do your own work and make sure it’s up to your high standards. If you can’t deal with people, I don’t care how brilliant you are. You do a bad job at creating future scientists who do good work and are eager to collaborate and learn. Shame on you.

In terms of how students and post-docs should be dealt with, well, I don’t know. But since I just indicated harsh criticism without ideas for improvement makes someone a jackass in my mind, I guess I should offer some ideas. So, OK. I present a few ways to convince me you’re an asshole.

1. Berate your students in front of others. Scoff, roll your eyes, laugh at a sincere idea, indicate their work is substandard or they are lazy. We might deserve it – I get that. But you owe it to us to indicate there are problems in private. Don’t cc people on harsh email. Make an attempt to discuss things in some respectful way.

2. Wait until you’re furious over something we’ve done (or failed to do) before addressing it. We can be annoying. I know. Sorry about that. We require care and attention and guidance, some of us more than others. Weekly meetings work well – I’ve had great success with those and have only worked for people who do them. Stopping by the bench or cubicle to touch base and ask questions helps.

I did summer research for a brilliant man when I was an undergrad. He employed different approaches with various students and met with us every day. Every Single Day we would troop up the stairs to a conference room and discuss our work. Sometimes it’d take 5 minutes, other meetings would stretch into hours. But there was a set time – 11AM – that we knew we had his attention. We could ask questions, address problems, and go around the table to report on progress. So, granted, my first experience with a research mentor was over the top fantastic. He also took us to lunch every other week and we would discuss anything other than lab work. Job searches, current events, personal matters. We’d talk and laugh and he’d get to know us. We – for some reason – mattered to a man who held multiple grants, was a distinguished full professor with a family, had written two engineering textbooks and was undeniably wonderful. I have yet to find anyone who matches his interest in students in his lab, though Boss certainly comes close with me.

3. Take credit for work you haven’t done. Or fail to sign off on work your students need to publish. I think authorship is important. Coming from a student perspective, we need those papers. My graduate advisor allowed us to control our own publishing destiny. While I appreciate the ability to decide on journals and deal with the submission details, I also love that Boss read one of those papers nearly 30 times. We changed format and wording and sentence structure and paragraph order. It was exhausting, but I needed the help. We take time and energy and I understand it's a time suck. But we can't magically become independent and productive - or rather, most of us can't.

4. Train your students to react as you do. Ask sarcastic questions, berate and belittle people, create an environment where students are terrified to present work or ask questions because failure is a guarantee. I find it disturbing that students who work for certain professors seem to cultivate their work habits or personality traits. It's natural, but it's also important to recognize that there are those who perpetuate a problem rather than trying to solve it.

Moving on to the next post, I don’t know if this institution is a bit worse than most or if being a post-doc leaves me a bit more unshielded than I was as a student. Though I will say that the grad students are treated a bit more roughly than I was in grad school. I don’t know that I could have made it here as a student. Then again, I’m not exactly doing a spectacular job as a research fellow either.

I think Leo stepped over the line. Multiple times and quite knowingly. He smirks after he says something rude. While I do acknowledge that there are those who are oblivious to how their words are received, I don’t see that being in play here. I also think that it’s fair to let the biggest jackass receive all the consideration. “Oh, he’s just like that.” or “She doesn’t know she’s offensive.” doesn’t carry much weight with me. Watch people’s faces. Wonder why students avoid you or your classes. There are clues. And while I understand I have work to do in toughening up a bit, I also think there’s great value in someone leaning to stop being an asshole. At least I think so. I'm not saying you have to bring me flowers each time we meet. I'd just like to be able to finish a statement. To not have you laugh at me while asking others to share in your gleeful shredding of my feelings. Basic consideration and professional courtesy.

To get that, confrontations might work in some cases – it’s not a bad suggestion. But, as Allie* points out, it can fail miserably. For those inflicting their power on others, it just indicates they’re effective at being intimidating and dominant. I really like my strategy of waiting until someone is finished speaking (or interrupting them if they’re in the middle of an insult) and maintaining eye contact with a serious expression and asking for ideas or solutions. I think expressing my point works well, but I do get off track and I do tend to need a bit of time to fully think through criticisms I hadn’t previously mulled over. But reminding people that I’m there to find answers, not negative comments, often refocuses the discussion.

In the aftermath of bad meetings, I do my share of obsessing and that energy often spills over in email and meetings with people I trust. Boss and Dr. Icing have done their share of talking me through these problems and I’m grateful for them. It has been important to me to find those I trust, who will respect my honesty and remain positive and affirming in moments of weakness. The fact is that I have few personal ‘bad mentor’ stories since I know I can’t tolerate mean people. I notice them quite quickly and avoid them as much as possible – the idea of working directly for someone like makes my stomach hurt.

Since I’ve been told that I should remain more calm and graceful under pressure by both mentors, I’ve been worried that I’m overly shrill or sensitive in groups. It was with great surprise and some relief that I was paged this morning by one of the Friday meeting attendees. He is giving a talk in the near future and thought that my “wonderful presentation contained a number of very exciting ideas” and wondered if he might use some of my slides for his own purposes.

“Of course.” I answered, wondering if we were talking about the same meeting. 'Wonderful?' Really? I’d gone with ‘brutal’ as my adjective of choice. I sent them along and included my recently published paper. Then I talked to yet another person who’s developing a talk and wanted to note some of my work.

So it’s coming along – I’m doing OK. In front of people, I don’t appear to come across as pathetic and unprepared. Even those who are aggressively critical are finding some of what I do useful. These are all good realizations.

“I can’t believe someone would be mean to you.” Anne said as I was talking to Boss on Monday afternoon.

“I know!” I said, trying for lightness when I was still quite upset. “I’m so sweet and defenseless!”

“You are very sweet.” Boss allowed. “But you’re far from defenseless.”

And there’s truth in that too. I notice that I still obsess over the asses of the world – I’m hurt and offended and upset by them. But then I get irritated – sometimes even while still dealing with them. So my thought at this point is that they’ll receive only the absolutely necessary respect and energy from me. Because if you can’t behave like a reasonable human being, I frankly don’t care how smart you are. I’m not impressed. I’m not alone in that feeling. There are other people who do what you do - regardless of what it is you do - and it's therefore completely possible to do the work without you. So, no, not so defenseless after all.


post-doc said...

* I wanted to link to Allie, but I'm having a problem lately with hidden profiles. They're keeping me from blogs I want to read! But I appreciate the comments regardless, though I've found myself disappointed I can't get to blogs by some readers.

It makes me angry that there are those who think the situations that so upset me are normal and standard. They're aren't - or they shouldn't be. And I'm all irritable lately, which explains the ranty post. We'll go back to gentle and happy tomorrow, I think.

Propter Doc said...

Point 2 is a big one with me. I am meeting wiht current PI one on one about once a year right now. Sure, we have weekly group meetings but that is no substitute for 1 on 1 meetings. There is no dropping past the desk or anything. I really resent the lack of attention (that sounds childish, I don't mean it too) because I think I deserve at least some as an employee.

Anyway, I hope you feel better tomorrow and that the car isn't too bad.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely with you about how those unprofessional comments and/or actions should not be the norm. I wish I had the power to teach some people how to behave. However, things do catch up to people. Some people can get away with it, but most people can't in the long term.

But, as for you, I think that you are definitely smart enough to hold your own. Maybe it's a hard lesson at first, but someday you will be able to handle the worst jackasses comfortably, and you will look back on these experiences and laugh. : )

Veo Claramente said...

It sounds like you are having a really hard time, I am sorry. As a post-doc one is definitely less shielded, but that is still no excuse.
The sad fact of social norms today is that one cannot tell people that their behaviour is just OFF. It is not acceptable, and is even considered childish: I can't handle you so I'll be pettish and complain. Its quite the juggling act delivering criticism without being rude or giving offense. And it's always the most obnoxious people who get away with it by virtue of their sheer gall.

It really sounds like you are on the right track though. Good luck!

Allie said...

Katie, Hi, You are not missing anything - I am blogless. I am afraid to seek outlet via blogging because I am currently trying the denial way of dealing with my situation. I am afraid that if I let loose, I will just drown and perish in my negativity.

To clarify, I was not trying to undermine your experience with Leo. It is just that when I see my own experiences expressed so well in print, I am pained at my situation and my inaction.

I am in grad school and anytime I talk about my troubles I get well-meaning suggestions about confronting bullies or growing a spine. Sometimes I told that this is how science works and I just need to deal. But, like you pointed out, such situations should not and need not be normal. But given the power parity between grad students and advisors, there is not much one can do without invoking further ire from the bully.

My defense is drawing near and I am totally and completely terrified. Not because I am not confident of the work I have done, but because I wither under criticism especially criticism accompanied by private bullying and smirks and sneers.

post-doc said...


In such situations, I have also been relatively inactive. When your degree is being held hostage, I tended to buckle under and attempted to endure. A post-doc, especially one I'm not sure I want, allows for a bit more power in these situations.

That being said, I'm really very sorry. Respect for students and their work varies over advisors and institutions and you're absolutely right that it's tremendously unfair that awful situations become normal for some people. I'm glad you're defending soon - I hope that it goes smoothly and that you're able to escape to somewhere more comfortable.

I wasn't meaning to offer advice - I try not to do that too much, but got a little drowned in negativity myself there. :) It's just frustrating and demoralizing and all too common. I really am sorry and hope things improve for you soon. At least you'll know what to avoid when looking for a post-doc or faculty position. (Small comfort, I know.)

Allie said...


Thank you for your kindness. I just reread what I wrote. Can I say I am totally embarrassed to be spouting off like that.

post-doc said...


I understand embarrassment over writing stuff online. Did you catch the book chapter I posted? :)

It sounds to me like you're in a sucky situation that should cause some distress. And - for me - repressing those feelings wasn't overly effective. But I'm all for doing what works, coping with what needs to be done, and getting out. I wish you all the luck in the world with that.

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