Improving Science

Science is, and must change.

I mentioned in a previous post that we got a bottle of Whisky to a PI of my department who refuse to give trimestrial science “output” reports.

Well, this little thing actually gave birth to an initiative we started with a few colleagues called “Improving Science“. After a few meetings and dinners, we decide to do something at our own level at the university here to improve the way the system works.

I presented all these ideas today, in front of a committee composed of 3 institute heads, and representatives of PhD students. The short talk was followed by a discussion, in which  the institute heads actually agreed with most of our ideas, and said they were thinking about it and try to implement them.

The good thing is that, in fact, they are already conscious of the problem, and having meetings about it. Nevertheless, I cant help feeling slightly frustrated because these things just take forever to change.

We had 3 mains points that we thought needed improvement.

-The evaluation of the PhD training. Right now, we only have a very final evaluation, and poor follow-up during the training. Implementing a mid-term meeting is necessary.

-The paper requirements are off the roof. PI’s required from us to publish 2-3 to 6-7 papers in order to graduate. Which means we have to split projects, do low-risk research, privilege quantity over quality, and so on. This is the thing I hate the most about the dutch system. Not to mention that people are put on them because they “need them”, without contributing to them very much, or at all. We proposed to lower that requirement to 1 good paper. It should be enough to get a PhD. Which would allow us to have more time to “play” with science and go on riskier projects. It still feel like going against a wall of habits, traditions, and dutch academic culture.

-The last point was about offering more opportunities for non-academic careers training. As most of the PhD will leave academia, the university should feel responsible to offer training in teaching, journalism, industry, policy making, or collaborate with NGO’s.

Well. I’m happy we actually took initiative, and presented our ideas. I deeply hope they will be used, and implemented as soon as possible. The next generation of scientist should be able to grow in better conditions then what we have now, although it’s not all bad of course.

My PI told me today I should not feel responsible for this. This is very weird to me. It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s only like this that the system can change. From the top and bottom. These elements, such a the sky high publication pressure, the high amounts of burn-outs and depression, the selfishness of people demotivate and drive me away from all of this. And I still love it. But I hate it so much as well. I thought it was possible to feel like this only when it comes to people. 

I apologize for writing such a long post. I needed to get that out of me, I think.

Let’s not give up just yet. Change might be ahead.

After last month’s rough patch, things have -fortunately- improved a bit. Just at the time I was jaded about the wonderful world of academia, a few little things happened. And they have the merit to put me back  in a more combative and optimistic state of mind.

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Everyone I’ve been talking about the worst sides of academia actually agreed with me on the system’s unsustainability. It’s bad, because it reflects how weary people are this days. It was also irritating, because most people would just say things like “It’s the system, it won’t change, you have to play the game …”. I deeply think my french education clashes with this. I simply can’t understand this attitude. Not doing anything against this consumes my energy bits by bits. Petitions, strikes, but more importantly, constructive changes and improvements are incredibly important to me.

A few events  -small or more consequent-, the past week proved me, once more, that I’m not the only one to think like that.  And it seems things could change for the best in the future.

First, let’s start with the smallest thing. Lego is starting to commercialize women scientist toys. It’s a very small step, but it deserves to be highlighted. And probably does a better promotion of women in science then that awful spot EU had managed to come up with a few years ago.

Second, I made a pact. With a friend of mine, a senior post-doc, and aspiring future PI. If we ever get in these positions, we will take action to improve the system. Not that we cannot start now. For example, I decided that my thesis committee will be approx. 50/50 men and woman. Because sometimes you have to force things before they seem normal. And I don’t want to defend in from of a committee with only 55+ men; even tough it’s almost a tradition at my university.

Third, the cherry on the cake. We received an email from our department’s administration, asking for a report on the research output from each PI. A report they want every 3 MONTHS. MONTHS. I will not even take the pain to explain how crazy that is. Anyway, one of the PI’s  send an email back (cc-ing everyone) saying that this was simply demotivating, un-inspired, and useless. I was so happy someone actually stood up and dared to say no. No to this non-sens. No to administrators who have no idea that a good research paper necessitates years of work. No to evaluating research on a simple count of papers. Whatever they contain. I, and a few more PhD’s were so happy about this that we decided to buy a bottle of excellent scotch as a sign of support to that PI.

So yes, I think it will be possible to change things, as long as enough people are willing to simply say no to non-sense. And I hope our generation will have that strength.

5000 words, 3.5 years, and …

and now it really starts. La merde. The past week has probably been one of the most hellish week of my PhD.

See, the last 3 years, a.k.a., phase 1, I’ve been happily working on a research project. Starting almost from scratch, developing hypotheses, performing lots fo experiments, and slowly building up enough data for a good research paper, making the final figures, and writing (summarizing) it in 5000 words. That was the good, innocent and enjoyable part of being a PhD student.

Then came phase 2. Submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. I don’t know when it will end.

Nooooo, I wasn’t cranky. No, I wasn’t sad. No, I did not feel like my main job had become formatting stuff in Word. And counting character numbers. And converting PDF’s. And all of this meaningless s*****, just to be done for one or two days, before it came back, again, without explanations. Or standard letters. No, I did not half-joke with my supervisor I would open a bakery after my PhD and be done with all this non-sense. No, we did not have that depressing debate at university, about non-existant career perspectives, burn-outs, and universities being ruthless and terrible employers.

So let me make it clear: I know that no paper ever gets accepted just like this. It’s normal that it gets rejected, and reviewed, and edited. Nevertheless, it’s hard, because this is my work. My project for the last 3 years. Week-ends and late evenings. Overall, very hard work. And I find it impossible to stay calm, neutral, unaffected, placid, and objective in that case. We are people, not emotionless humanoids.

Yes, this is all normal. And it will eventually go away, because, yeah, experiments need to be done. The classic 4 phases I described previously. (I’m almost in phase 4, by the way).

 It is a bit less normal that subjective (or do I want to say, profit and hype-driven) editorial decisions control your scientific career. And by this I mean, it is even less normal that an impact factor, which is nothing more then a stupid number, is almost the only, yes, only, indicator, on paper, of the quality of your science.

And you know the part that revolts and disgusts me deeply ? It’s that we, scientists, do nothing about this. Or let’s say, almost nothing. “It’s the system, you have to play the game, it’s a phase we all go trough, you’ll never change it, bla bla bla …” .Yes, we are scared people, collaborating with an unfair and stupid system that ultimately drives good scientists in an other direction. Or should I say, kicks them out as soon as they are not productive enough. But why should it matter when you have tenure, or publish enough, or get grants … everything’s fine, right ? And why should it matter when you know the expiration date of your career already ? Haha.

Now, the question that I haven’t figured out yet is, can I comply to these unwritten rules ? Can I accept and play that game ? When do you stop looking at yourself in the mirror ? Frankly, I have no idea. I’ve written on this blog mostly positive things about science (1,2,3,4, and many more). They remain true, and I do still enjoy all these things. This hasn’t changed.  But is the price to pay really worth it ? That’s the million dollar question. Bah. Future me will figure it out. For now, I have to get back to the paper factory sometimes called university.

And, if I ever make my way in there (less then 10% chances, yes), dear bloody system, I am coming for you. I’m not alone. And you don’t know who you’re messing with. Like all revolutions, this one will start when the last straw breaks the camel’s back.

 

–Sorry for slight excessive dramaturgy, I really needed to rant write this down and get it out of my head.

PI Quotes – 5 “Grad students don’t stay at the lab on week-end if their salary is too high”

I realized that until now, all my PI Quotes were either funny, either truly positive.  Nevertheless, we all know that some PI’s go from being a little offensive here and there to complete jerks. You can judge by yourself where on this ladder this one stands …

Let’s give some context: I’m on a conference, around a table, talking with other PhD’s, Post-Doc’s, and PI’s about our salary. We note that a swiss PhD student earns probably more then a french PI … (true story)

Then, this  PI says : “Grad students don’t stay at the lab on week-end if their salary is too high. They rather book a flight for a week-end in Barcelona ! That’s not good.”

That literally knocked my socks off because : 1 – He/She was not drinking, and 2 – It was not meant as a joke … 1% of me knew that there was so truth there, but 99% of me also shouted at him “sorry whhaaattttt ?” , noting that this person really thought that “grad student = dumb research robot that is meant to stay in the lab 24/7” …

At the end, beyond revolting, disrespectful, and contemptuous, it’s just really sad … 

Science is a girl thing. Really ?

I fell off my chair when I saw that little video buzzing of twitter & co this week-end.

It’s a promotional clip made by some people sitting in chairs and thinking about how to promote women in science at the European Commission. Yep … I’m not even joking.

Seriously, they could hardly have done a worse job then that. Although the goal (promote women in science) is perfectly legitimate, I don’t think that this is the way to do it. This is the way you sell make-up and high-heels.

If the clip is supposed to show woman in science, why is it the guy who sits  in front of the microscope and wears a white coat ? (and why does he looks at them like a creep ?) Why do they walk  and look like they were the actresses of Sex and the City ? And why is everything pink and so artificial ? 

This is just the worse way to promote equality between men and women in science, that is far from been achieved. I wondered if these people ever set foot in a lab to see how it really looks, and how it’s generally far from glamourous.

Today I attended a PhD defense where the entire jury of 8 people was constituted by 40 to 70 year old men. Girls, we still have a long way to go … (Note to myself: I should write a post to discuss this in more details some time.)