Monday, July 16, 2007

I meant to tell you.

Dawn has returned after resigning.

She sent email while I was home with Mom and said she stopped by to share her news, apologized for not keeping in touch, and said she'd see me when I got back to the office. I grinned and we exchanged hugs when I discovered her at a lunch meeting I sometimes attend. I took a seat beside her and she explained what happened.

"Boss asked me to write a letter to the NIH explaining why I'd left the position. I don't know if that's demanded for the grant or if it's something he wanted to do himself."

I shrugged, guessing the former but unsure.

"So I called my graduate advisor and he suggested honesty, but without burning any bridges. So I wrote one, signed it and left it in an unsealed envelope so Boss could read it. I told him I'd be willing to discuss revisions so he should let me know if that was necessary. I'd decided that he wasn't to blame and I wasn't angry, so while I was harsh about EB (Evil Boss). But I wrote that I was happy here and miserable there and didn't see a good way to make the collaboration work. But I said nice things about Boss and this institution. A week later, Boss called and said there was a position with the SPB (Supreme Polar Bear) if I wanted to discuss that."

I nodded and smiled, relieved that Boss had made things right for her. She'd been given an opportunity with a powerful group that should yield several impressive publications and a nice salary that's far higher than the post-doc average. I was pleased, but not particularly surprised. Boss is kind and fair, so I rather thought he'd find a way to help Dawn.

What surprised me a bit more was the email I received last week. It mentioned that someone new would be starting soon and might also be attending the retreat. I sighed at the thought of sharing an office with yet another woman placed in a painful research environment. Then I finished skimming the email and found the cancer of interest was different than it had been. At this, I raised my eyebrows. Boss had terminated a collaboration? Starting a new one was not shocking - Boss has tons of ideas and can devise a project with nearly anyone who crosses his path. But turning away from an established project with hypotheses and preliminary data?

My assumption is that from various conversations with Dawn and Jill and secondhand information about Winnie's experience, he decided it was an inappropriate training environment. Since he was funding the position completely, I'm thrilled that he found a different group for the next scientist. I hope she does well, and I'll try to remember to let you know when I meet her.

For something that demanded so much of my attention when it was going badly, I'm not sure how the happy resolution kept slipping my mind. Perhaps there's a personal lesson there.

"Are you happy?" I asked Dawn before we made plans to carpool to the retreat.

"I am." She said after a slight pause. The discovery that there are terribly selfish people in the academy isn't a pleasant one. The acknowledgment that we are pretty powerless is also uncomfortable. Yet we continue to learn and work and research. My hope is that someday - when it's our turn to control this environment - that we'll use a different, better set of rules.


Psycgirl said...

You are right, the discovery of selfish (and petty) people in academia is not a nice one. The worst discovery to come to, for me, has been that I am only a temporary presence in my advisors' and supervisors' lives, and thus they often make decisions in their best interests that aren't in mine - or don't back me up when I have a problem. I realize now its probably because they are a permanent resident here, whereas I have a short time at MSCU.

When these things happen, I remind myself to learn from them - how will I be different? How will I make sure I am fair and change the rules (in your words) when I get to the position where I can do so. But I often wonder and worry - did other female academics precede me with the same intentions and fail? Will I fail too?

I think you raise some interesting thoughts about the "intergenerational" transmission of problems in academia...even though that might not have been the focus when you were writing this?

CJR said...

My hope is that someday - when it's our turn to control this environment - that we'll use a different, better set of rules.

Indeed so. There's nothing more depressing that someone agreeing with you that something is unfair and shitty whilst telling you 'that's just the way it is'. The question is how exactly we change things so that Evil Bosses can't get away with it...

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