No Crybabies in Science

Every so often, Sci hangs out with other grad students, or sometimes recent post-grads. If we are relatively good friends, there will almost always be some rendition of the conversation Sci likes to call “no crybabies in science”.
crybaby.jpg


Now I think we all know by now that science is no care bear’s tea party. But Sci still wonders if the sheer…unemotionality…of science is similar to that of other disciplines or jobs.
As a first year, grad students learn quickly not to show too much emotion. Many of the students (male and female), and even the PIs Sci talks to will tell her about the ONE time they cried. Usually, this follows with a story of how they were told, either gently or otherwise, that Thou Shalt Not Cry. Not where anyone can see you, anyway. And you are never to ADMIT you cried, either. The person who saw you will give you a pass. This time. But don’t do it again. It’s embarrassing.
And this is hard. Science ISN’T a tea party. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating, difficult, and you often feel like you’re stonewalled at every possible opportunity by other scientists, lack of funding, or data that stubbornly tells you your hypothesis was wrong. Hugely expensive equipment malfunctions. And grad school is a pressure cooker. Long hours, low to no pay, classes and lab and papers AND a thesis…you might as well be on reality TV. Relationships often suffer, emotions fray, people are on edge. Possibly because of this, scientists are often…not nice to each other. Challenging people’s ideas is PART of science, it plays a huge role in what we do and why we do it well. But “challenging” is not always nice. If you’re lucky, it comes out as “I think you’re wrong”. If you’re unlucky, the person didn’t get a lot of sleep and has a grant due, and it comes out as “I think you’re stupid”.
And it hurts. But don’t let THEM know that. Thou Shalt Not Lose Thy Temper. Thou Shalt Not Cry. Thou shalt not snap at someone, whine, or betray a grievance. You shall not even say “that was rude”. Because most importantly, Thou Shalt Not Make Enemies. If a big, bad prof insults you to your face, you smile and thank them as though pearls did indeed drop from the lips of that horrid swine. You might need a letter of recommendation from that guy one day. If you cry or generally act upset, you very quickly earn a reputation, one you don’t need when you’re trying to convince a PI that you should become their next All-Star grad student.
Now, Sci is sure the vast majority of this is really just growing up. Grownups don’t cry in meetings, grownups don’t get angry in public (though this tends to be more acceptable if you’re male, which is a whole new can of worms), and grownups don’t “bring their emotions to work”.
But what I think might be peculiar to science is that this doesn’t apply only to the negative emotions (though those are generally the objects of dressing-downs and ridicule), but also to the positive ones. Scientists…are not encouraged to be happy about life, at least not outwardly. Many scientists SAY they want a bright, motivated, excited student in their labs. But really, it seems they only want bright and motivated. Excited means bothersome. Excited means new directions the PI may not want to go in, and excited means maybe speaking out and saying something stupid in front of people and embarrassing your advisor. And when you present your data and you’re TOO excited about your findings, you get bad reviews.
If you’re TOO excited, there must be something wrong, or you must be uninformed. The proper scientist is excited only in a very moderate, controlled way. The proper scientist is tempered with cynicism and disdain. The proper scientist doesn’t dare act too excited, because excited often comes across as naive.
In fact, there’s a certain amount of cred that goes along with being negative. You know the younger students, those are the ones with bright eyes and bushy tails. But you know the ones who almost ready for PhDs, too. These are the grizzled veterans, the cynical, sarcastic, flat-toned lab recluses who gaze upon the new students with a cynical eye. Dang first years need to get on their lawns. In THEIR day, they had to take advanced biochem and LIKE IT. And these old timers, they spread their cynicism willy nilly to the new students: You want to do teaching and outreach? *snort* Wait til advisor wants your ass back in the lab. You think that idea is going to WORK? Oh, honey, no. You’re totally excited about the opportunity to learn to write a grant?! Great, we’ve got a new one fresh out of the cabbage patch, who doesn’t know what pain is.
And Sci has a problem with this. I have become one of those cynical, grizzled veterans. It’s how I know I’m almost ready for my PhD. But I’m not a fan of what I’ve become. Since when does it give you cred to act cynical toward the bright-eyed happy youngster? Since when did blasting someone’s experiment down become something you feel like you should do? Why should I take down those who WANT to do outreach and teaching, when I was the same way myself? And yet, Sci does these things. Part of it is a misplaced kind of sympathy, Sci wants to let you know that won’t work. It’ll save you a LOT of pain from trying to MAKE it work. But it never comes out like that.
Grad school is a rough time. When you come out, you are honed into a scalpel blade, an expert in your tiny, tiny field, presumably ready to wield yourself against the world (or at least against your post-doc). But all that honing makes you sharp in more ways than one. Suddenly, you have no patience for the young, naive, and excited. But maybe you should.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so great to be so cynical, and cred shouldn’t be given to those who are snarky. Maybe we should remember what it was like to be a first year, and remember all the things we WISH people had said and not said to us, to make our lives easier. And maybe we should say those things, and help out some n00bs. Who knows? Maybe, if Sci is nice and patient to the first years who remind her so much of who she was, she’ll begin to remember what it was about science that was so exciting. And if we all remember what was excited, and get excited again, maybe grad school won’t look quite so awful.

17 Responses

  1. dude. i just got email tonight from young excited 1st/2nd years on some department committee and got all irritated. i think i actually said out loud, “who the FUCK are these people and why are they sending me this bullshit?!”
    i was the most intimidating of my own cohort, the rest were kind of scared of me with good reason. and i doled out the tough love with the most sincere of good intentions to the younger sub-cohort that i’m leaving behind. (*cough* hell… you know, i think i became like my boss.)
    i’m all giddy about the new postdoc lab, though. maybe there is hope for me yet on that front.

  2. The atmosphere in my lab is much like this – but being British and very repressed anyway, the transition is easier.

  3. Thanks for the reminder of why I am trying to get out of academia.

  4. I guess I am lucky that I am an MD specializing in pediatrics. Shows of emotion are far more acceptable, especially positive ones.
    Lack of enthusiasm has always puzzled me. After I present my data I want to spike the football and do a victory dance, damn the penalty for excessive celebration! Maybe more children would want to be scientists instead of athletes or musicians if we were encouraged to be happier.

  5. Pascale, I love you.
    If there’s one thing I want my kids [1] to get from those teaching them, it’s just how physioprofing awesome this stuff is! And that’s high on the list of things I try to pass on to the ones I mentor [2]. Nothing like having a 30-something engineer come around at some random time bubbling over with “Look at this!”
    We’re in these careers for thirty-forty years. People pay us to do this way-k3w1 stuff — how awesome is that? Let’s spread the joy, people!
    [1] Broadly defined.
    [2] The biokids have got it. When I get a phone call from one of them who just “got it” over some physics (or whatever) and is so excited s/he can hardly speak — that’s the big payoff.

  6. The cynicism-gives-you-cred thing is not unique to science as much as it is to ANY pressure-cooker of an educational program (although scientists do seem to take particular pride in being cynics…perhaps because it is easy to treat skepticism and cynicism as one and the same?). Often the people in charge of such programs take a kind of perverse pride in how beaten-down and disillusioned their students become–because if you’re having fun, how could you possibly be learning anything. Are you smiling? You must be doing it wrong.
    I am a senior undergrad at Purdue, and the engineering program here (which I am thankfully NOT a part of) subscribes to the you-have-to-break-them-first school of education, and it kind of bleeds over into all the math and chemistry courses at the school. And we produce damn good engineers…. but we also convince a lot of people that math and chemistry are horrible, painful things. I know countless people who came here LIKING math and science and within two years are practically phobic of them.
    Personally, I think all this “if it doesn’t suck, you’re not working hard enough” is bullshit. Of course science is hard, learning is hard, growing up is hard… but I think that the idea that it MUST be soul crushing is a total lie. I don’t think that the innocence of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshman or first year is a magical thing that must be preserved at all costs, but I also don’t think that the cynical and bitter grad student stereotype is any kind of ideal.
    Why can’t we all just recognize that we’re human? That science (or getting a Phd, or whatever) is hard, and you have to thicken your skin a little bit, but that excitement and happiness are still important and valuable?
    I love science to death and I have stacks of grad school info and applications scattered around my office… but its these ideas–that scientists must be somehow super human, that training to be one must be soul crushing–that make me want to turn and run in the other direction as fast as I can.

  7. I thought hazing was illegal…

  8. You might want to check out some of the anthropological and sociological analyses of ‘science’ as a practice, a social phenomenon. The idea of science as objective and emotionless comes from a very specific cultural background. Its not the way all people do science; it is a way to silence or marginalize those not in the dominant group.
    or maybe I cry too much.

  9. Scientists…are not encouraged to be happy about life, at least not outwardly. Many scientists SAY they want a bright, motivated, excited student in their labs. But really, it seems they only want bright and motivated. Excited means bothersome. Excited means new directions the PI may not want to go in, and excited means maybe speaking out and saying something stupid in front of people and embarrassing your advisor. And when you present your data and you’re TOO excited about your findings, you get bad reviews.
    If you’re TOO excited, there must be something wrong, or you must be uninformed. The proper scientist is excited only in a very moderate, controlled way. The proper scientist is tempered with cynicism and disdain. The proper scientist doesn’t dare act too excited, because excited often comes across as naive.

    This is total bullshit. Maybe you are in a particular environment where it seems this way, but it is not at all the case in general.

  10. The people who “started” science which just the opposite of the people who use, abuse, and exploit it now. They were members of the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods. They were every bit fascinated by science and if you read their personal musings (i.e Newton) they were quite mad, subjective, and speculative by todays standards, although they kept this part hidden. An imaginative and “sensitive” mind, perfectly capable of crying, is a critical component of the “best” science. I completely disagree with the article. An overly competetive and financially motivative modern science has done everything to prevent true the best scientist from being nutured to their full potential, and suppress the greatest minds. Good science is a high endeavor, and if you have ever have the opportunity to meet a truly great scientist, not just someone capable of procuring money and doing politics and exploiting foreign postdocs, you will find them the most generous and curious and “senstive” of people.

  11. I’m all for outward shows of enthusiasm in science. First, it’s fun, and second, the kind of environment it fosters enhances creativity.
    Sure, there’s a good number of scientists who are nattering nabobs of negativity, but forget them. BORING!
    Of course, this is coming from a slightly chubby white d00d who recently went into the main lab, annouced to his lab mates, “And now, I’d like to do a little dance for good data”, whereupon I launched into an uncoordinated series of movements. So take it with a grain of salt.

  12. Work it, Nat!! Sci is also not as cynical as she seems, and has been known to do “the happy data dance”.

  13. Perhaps this isn’t the norm for most programs . . . but I agree with several commenters above that excitement and enthusiasm has always been encouraged where I am. Happy scientists are thorough, motivated, and curious scientists.

  14. Thanks to everyone who is calling the anti-enthusiasm attitude bullshit. You give me hope. 🙂

  15. Sci is also not as cynical as she seems, and has been known to do “the happy data dance”.

    Or the end-zone jig when the latest bugsmash takes you into “patent first, publish next” territory. Like last night [1]. See ya in the Red Rag, peeps!
    [1] BSEG

  16. Re: Tim:
    I’m not sure if I’d use Newton as a standard example of the scientist persona. Keynes said it best when he noted that Newton was less among the first of Enlightenment-era scientists and more among the last of the mystics that ruled mathematics for more than a thousand years.
    ……
    In my dealings with graduate students (yes, I’m still an undergrad, shun me as you like, I care not), many of those I’ve had as instructors have seemed rather enthusiastic in classroom settings. I actually preferred them to full-fledged professors for some course material.
    It does seem, as well, that prominent figures in fields tend to be excited on a regular basis. I’m reminded particularly of a lecture I attended by Eric Wieschaus; he was so freaking hyper to be presenting something rather simple.

  17. Sci wrote “Maybe, if Sci is nice and patient to the first years …”
    Some grad students see helping new students as a drag on their own research, others see it as leaving a legacy. Three or four post-docs regularly helped me when I was a grad student (and a couple advanced grad students), I fondly remember them decades hence. (I joined a lab without senior students because there had been a mass graduation of six them that spring.)
    Because you find the time, and have the interest to blog, I suspect you realize the enjoyment of mentoring.
    A shout-out to PhysioProf: I’m putting you on decaf and suggesting that you learn about “poetic license.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: