On navigating politics and the importance of female mentors

One of things I find hardest about being a graduate student is navigating interactions with others of varied statuses around me. My institute now is very different, culturally, from my undergraduate institution, despite being in the same country and only a couple of hours away. I think a lot of that comes from being an institute, rather than a university department – of course we are connected with a university, but there are no undergrads around, and very few Masters students. There are few teaching responsibilities for PIs, and none for postdocs or PhD students. There is no departmental tea room!*

Here, the only people who ask questions in seminars are PIs and senior postdocs and people who don’t know yet. People don’t hang around after seminars and debate or chat; work always takes priority over networking. The culture is less relaxed, but more than that, it’s unclear even what is and is not acceptable. There are few opportunities to observe how others interact with each other – to see who is gregarious and who of few words, to see if and how other students will approach a PI with a question. The politics of how and what and when I am supposed to speak to others about their work, about my work, to ask for help, to collaborate – it escapes me. And of course there are no written rules, no induction course, nothing to go by except what observation you can.

Maybe I’m just slow at this – I certainly wasn’t the most socially skilled as a child – but I wish there was a little more guidance available on navigating departmental and intra-lab politics. The title of this post by Athene Donald – On being Feisty and Unconventional – made me smile because I figure that’s what I’m doomed to be. I’ve always been feisty, even when shy, and eventually a part of me says sod convention, whatever it is around here, and speak my mind.

I’m probably going to grow up to be one of Hope Jahren’s ‘difficult women‘. I’d quite like that, actually 🙂

But what I’d really like is a local female mentor to help me tread the line between ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’. Between ‘feisty’ and ‘rude’. Between ‘confident’ and crossing boundaries.
I have two assigned academic mentors, both male, along with my two male supervisors… People talk about the importance of mentors, of multiple mentors… but, erm, how do you find one, if you want one, in the first place?

— BoB

*probably what I miss most; I think a department-wide tea break is great for building community.


What I’m Reading

Yeah, this didn’t happen on Sunday. Oops. I will try to stick to my self-imposed schedule better in future!

eLife is one! eLife is one of my favourite journals: they’re open access, they publish reviews along with the paper, they have a system for associating supplementary figures with the main ones, and I recently discovered they like to look out for early career researchers. Plus, eLife Lens seems to be a nice way to read papers online.

PLoS Biology is ten! They have selected ten articles from the past decade to feature in this celebratory collection – worth reading.

What to wear to do science: it shouldn’t matter, but people will judge you no matter what you wear. It seems from the comments that what is the norm varies a lot between disciplines. Where I am, my (male) boss regularly wears cargo shorts and t-shirts with holes in; one clinician in the department can usually be found in a shirt, tie, and suit trousers, except for the days he wears a tracksuit!

Do you know what sexual harrassment looks like?

PubMed is trialling allowing authors to comment on papers – currently it’s in a closed pilot phase, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out. I suspect that the majority of papers will receive no comments, while some will really spark debate – same as happens already, really… More here.

MozFest, a festival / conference / gathering dedicated to using the internet to do interesting, important, open things, was this weekend, and the new Mozilla Science website was released. These are the guys exploring the idea of peer code review for scientific software, and I can’t wait to see what else they come up with.

Sunday Morning Science: What I’m Reading

A note on Sunday mornings: during my undergrad, briefly, someone ran a Sunday morning science discussion group. My friend S. and I would turn up, gigantic mugs of tea in hand, to talk about designer babies, or genetically modified food, for an hour or so, then we’d all go and have a full English brunch. S. and I were the only ones who ever brought our own caffeine… I wonder what the others thought about that. Anyway, I like the idea of Sunday mornings as a time to reflect on scientific happenings, so here’s my round-up of things I’ve found interesting and worth a read this week.

The anatomy of successful computational biology software – interviews with authors of widely-used tools.

How to make scientific software sustainable. With a The Princess Bride reference!

For cat people, see through your pet’s eyes. I wonder if the differences in colour vision help cats to see their prey?

Gross but cool: think you have a nematode infection in your mouth, but your doctor doesn’t believe you? Why not pull it out yourself and do a genetic analysis? Not to mention take pictures and show all your colleagues.

It’s impossible to ignore the sexual harrassment revelations that have occurred this week, and I like  this post by Jason Thibault as an overview and timeline, with links to many of the original posts. It’s also interesting to compare the reaction of the atheism/secularism community. I had no idea it was possible to have a “pro-harrassment” faction! :/ One post that isn’t linked there, that I think is important, is this post by Janet Stemwedel. Read this if you’re wondering why the women involved didn’t report events immediately. (I also like her blog in general)

I’d also like to add a link to DNLee’s original post on The Urban Scientist, as with everything that’s happened since I think it’s important to remember the events that spurred Monica Byrne to come forward. Seeing one person be brave can help others find their courage.

And finally, to make the wet lab biologist in you smile: That’s not how you pipette!

— Bob

(yesss, I got this posted while it’s still morning here!)


The new students started today; I’m officially a second year PhD student.

This is just a little bit scary, given that I still haven’t finished the experiment that will prove my experimental system can be used to tackle the main question of my PhD… or got really any results… but at least I do feel like I’ve learned something already. Even if it’s things like “trust no one protocol, always double check”, “always google error messages” and “my boss isn’t as scary as he looks”.

Two things I’ve learnt have lead me to decide that I ought to be blogging: one, that I’m really out of practice at writing, and two, that if I want something to change then I’d better start doing it myself.

So hello and welcome, to the blog of a grumpy but optimistic PhD student working somewhere on the border between molecular biology and bioinformatics. Hopefully I’ll learn something from this, too, in the next few years – and hopefully you might too 🙂