How to grow a spine with no support?
September 28, 2011 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Growing a spine? How do I learn to stand up for myself?

I've seen a few similar questions before, but I'm really struggling with this so figured I'd try again.

I'm an academic scientist (a postdoc), and am stuck in a horrible collaboration that just isn't working. The various members of the collaborations are all "experts" in their fields (and have the requisite inflated egos). Involved are two professors (A and B), myself, and a staff scientist (C). I am the only one who on paper is a non-expert, though have spent the most time working on this particular problem, and certainly have what I think is the best understanding of the whole problem.

In the ideal world, the collaboration would involve us all working together to design experiments, and then me making samples and giving them to C to put into his big machine, while I would slowly get trained to use the machine myself.

What actually happens, is that any experiment I propose is immediately rejected by C (seemingly just because I had the idea), and when I try to appeal to A and B, they side with the expert (ie not me). When I try to ask to get more training so that I can run the experiments myself, A and B agree in theory but never do anything to follow through - in fact they have 1) criticized me for taking time away from lab to go to a short training course, 2) refused my requests to get another person involved, 3) refused my requests to spend time in a different environment where I know there are friendly helpful people.

It really feels like anytime I have a scientific opinion different than A or B or C it just gets ignored (and I really mean ignored, as in no one is willing to listen to me to see my point of view). And this has over and over and over again come back to significantly delay the project.

It's clear now that I spent the first year and a half of this collaboration "believing" A, B and C when they said I was confused, when in fact they were the ones that were wrong. Yet I can't seem to move beyond this and really insist on the experiments I think are scientifically sound. I've had multi-hour meeting where I've stated my concerns over and over again and they have been summarily ignored. But then it is me that has to go make the sample, which I then go do (and become livid about when they don't work).

I feel like my only options are:
1) Quit (which feels like flushing the last three years of my life down the drain)
2) Figure out how to refuse to do experiments I don't think are worthwhile.
3) Find someone else to train me, even if it means going behind the backs of A and B.

I'm so caught up in this that I'm having a hard time seeing if there are other options or even how to go about doing 2 or 3.

I'm not very confrontational by nature, so even pushing for hours for my point is really taxing. When, after doing that, my ideas are just ignored yet again, I feel completely crushed.

So, I guess the question is, how do I change this dynamic?

posted by lab.beetle to Human Relations (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Can you add option 4: finding a different, more friendly place to do a postdoc? It sounds like a bad situation, but not all are.
posted by procrastination at 7:20 AM on September 28, 2011

Unfortunately you have very little actual power. The only power I see you having is the power to make their lives more difficult by quitting. That may or may not be enough to get them to change their ways. If they refuse to change, you have to ask yourself if you're willing to throw away what you've built thus far. If you're not willing to exercise your power (i.e., if you're unwilling to quit), then you are effectively powerless. Which means there's fuck-all you can do about it save what you're already doing, which doesn't appear to be working very well.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:23 AM on September 28, 2011

Oh, and to more directly answer your question:

You grow a spine the same way you grow muscles: by exercising them. It may hurt to walk away from years of work, but you will likely feel much stronger for it. But only you can determine whether you're actually able to "exercise" your spine without breaking your back (argh, painful analogy... breaking your back == hurting yourself in the long run).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:28 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Figure out how to refuse to do experiments I don't think are worthwhile.

I was once coerced by a senior manager to build a microwave isolator with a ferrimagnetic material which I knew would not work. I explained it would be a waste of time and money, but he would not listen. Let's say his name was Garvey.

So I built it according to Garvey's way. In fact, I called it the Garvey Isolator and I promoted it with some of the other engineers as the greatest thing ever. I set up a demonstration for about 20-25 people and when I put microwave energy through it - as expected - it failed miserably.

Garvey never made me build stuff his way again.
posted by three blind mice at 7:29 AM on September 28, 2011 [20 favorites]

The problem isn't that you aren't standing up for yourself. The problem is that you are not getting cooperation or respect. Cooperation and respect depend partly on other people which is why you don't have the power to get them on your own.

three blind mice has given an example of winning through actions, never through argument. However, it's probably too late to turn this around considering you have a years-long pattern of being disrespected by these guys.

So find another postdoc position. Your skills probably are more transferable than you think, as in, if you have expertise in Andalusian goat horn carvings, you might be able to massage them into expertise in Galician goat horn carvings. But even if not, you will never succeed in the place where you are now. Sunk costs are a trap.
posted by tel3path at 7:39 AM on September 28, 2011

First of all: this is not a reflection on your abilities as a scientist. I don't know if you think that, but in your shoes I might. Instead of thinking about that, think of it as an engineering problem about the most efficient way to deal with A, B, and C. You need the best solution to get them to see you as someone who's their peer, not just the newbie on the block.

In answer to option #2: it's not clear to me exactly how you're making your arguments. Are you just telling them your idea? Or are you backing up that idea with facts: either observational data that you can provide in a nice figure, or details about experiments that other people have done in this field and what parameters tell you that a specific method makes more sense than C's entrenched ideas? As you know, scientists like tangible proof before they'll believe things, and it can be hard to get them to agree with you without some sort of factual evidence.

If you think about it this way, A and B have evidence that C is good: s/he is a staff scientist, has experience using the big machine, presumably has tons of experience and papers under his/her belt. It's hard for A and B to see you in the same way at first. But, that doesn't mean that you can't use a rational approach to dealing with C in front of A and B. If all 4 of you are in a meeting, and C says "no, no, this will never work" can you ask C "what part of it do you find problematic? I think it's an improvement over what we're currently doing for reasons x, y, and z. Look at these numbers from Smith and Jones in 2008 - see how much of an improvement it is over the entrenched way you're doing it is?"

Often the best proof is you actually doing the experiment. Is it possible to prepare two samples: one the way they want it and one the way you want it? Then run some diagnostics to show that your way is better, and you have the numbers to prove it. Some people really need some strong positive data to be convinced one way or the other.

As for option 3: I'm not sure exactly how your funding situation and that of whatever facility you're using works. It's never a bad idea to talk to other people about your experiments, but on the other hand you don't want to overdo it and people to withdraw from your collaboration.

Are you closer to either A or B? Pick your favorite - whoever seems slightly more understanding, or whoever is a more direct boss - and ask to meet with them one-on-one. Explain your concerns to them and give specific examples: for example, say: "I have trouble interacting with C and I was hoping you could give me some advice. There have been multiple times when I've tried to have an intellectual discussion about the experiments with him/her and haven't been able to make headway. For example, when we were talking about experiment X, I had wanted to do it this way, as per references #1, 2, and 3 but C wanted to do it another way. When we did it C's way, it didn't work. I am having a hard time communicating with C about the best way to do experiments and was wondering if you have any suggestions. I know I'm new to this technique, but we all want some good data." See what A or B has to say. This will do two things: first, it will give you insight into whether A or B is really open to helping you succeed, or just see you as another disposable postdoc (and can help you decide whether option #1 is the best choice for you.) Second, you have opened up an avenue for rational discussion about the project. A or B will hopefully understand that you WANT to get the results, and you're trying to give input, and hopefully they can help you think of some solutions: whether that changes who you get trained with, or whether that changes the way that you can approach C, or some other good solution that will get you the results you want.

In conclusion: give them data. Overwhelm them with data. Make your arguments with data. The best data includes: 1. quantifiable observations/experiments you've done 2. quantifiable observations/experiments other people have done. Any scientist worth his/her salt will respect the data. Any scientist who ignores the data is not worth working for. Good luck. Science can be a contentious game.
posted by be11e at 7:53 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's unfortunate that you've genuinely tried many of the first-round attempts at a work-around for a situation like this. You've been very reasonable about proposing ideas, going along with things, etc.

The devious approach: Make up a bunch of samples, send to be measured. Lots of samples, all at once. Most of them are as A/B requested, one series is your favorite idea. Label them vaguely (so C doesn't catch what he's measuring) but you'll be able to get your data piece by piece. If you've accidentally overloaded C with this large request, offer to help run the samples. With luck, when you get a couple of samples through, you'll have even more data to follow up be11e's suggestion.

I also favor the put-your-foot-down approach, "growing a spine" as you put it, and sending the above set of samples off with full explanations, and you won't be providing Garvey_01-Garvey_10 samples until they've measured Beetle_1-Beetle_10 samples. If A tells you you're being unreasonable, explain that you're doing just the same as him, except for a different pet theory. Remind them that the reason they hired a post-doc is not just to get person-hours on the project but to have additional expertise and thinking power and it's time they took advantage of that; and the reason post-docs accept such jobs is to get experience using their expertise, and getting practice at developing and testing theories, not to spend three years following directions like an undergrad.
However, I should give you the caveat that while my grad advisor didn't consider a student ready to graduate until you'd and taken ownership of the project by disagreeing with him in group meeting, this preparation meshed poorly with my first post-doc advisor's (micro)management style, resulting in a job which lasted only 1.5 years and I had to get recommendations from the other scientists rather than the group leader when I left. So perhaps my advice is not the one you want to take. Or perhaps A-C are willing for you to take charge of more things once you demonstrate how much you want to.
posted by aimedwander at 8:10 AM on September 28, 2011

Are you completely dependent on the big machine for generating data? If there's some other method, even if it's not quite as good, you could run some samples yourself and contrast the results with the ones from the big machine. Ideally, your idea works while the big machine results fail. Then open up a discussion about various explanations for the discrepancy - people are more willing to admit that they're wrong if they arrive at that conclusion themselves; if you tell them they're wrong they'll just dig in their heels.

You could also just go stand next to C every time he runs the big machine. Everyone agrees you're supposed to learn how to use it, right? So you're taking the training into your own hands. Stand there, take notes and ask questions, just like he was actually teaching you. Inevitably the whole thing will come to a head - he will complain to A and B that you are slowing him down, and that's when you remind everyone that you're supposed to get this training. (It's hard to predict how it will go from there - you may find yourself looking for another position, but at least you had the satisfaction of standing up for yourself.) Good luck!

P.S. My postdoc advisor was perpetually convinced that he was right about everything, and the only way to get around it was to run an experiment both ways, his way and mine. I never admitted beforehand that I was doing both methods but when I showed him 2 sets of data, he had to agree that my way worked. We didn't dwell on the fact that his idea was wrong. It sort of took the sting out of it, because even though he was wrong we still had some data that he could move forward with.
posted by Quietgal at 9:46 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It may be that C may feel insecure or threatened by you. Maybe they fear that if you get trained enough on this machine, they won't be as necessary to the project and will be relegated to the role of a technician, just running "your" samples without getting the credit they feel they deserve for their expertise. If this is true, standing up to C, though satisfying, may just make them dig in their heels further.

Ultimately, I think you should probably try to find another position where you will be treated like an actual colleague and won't have to be constantly on the defensive. If you do stay, though, one tactic might be to be very ingratiating to and respectful of C, keeping your own reservations to yourself for the time being. You may be able to have a productive scientific conversation with C after their defenses have been lowered.

This could be combined with Quietgal's strategy, so that you're not totally stuck doing things their way while you wait for C to stop being so defensive: try to get some data yourself using a less fancy method, and if you do get a promising result, show it to the group in a neutral, non-combative way.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:18 AM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for all of the great responses. If nothing else, this feels very validating that the things I've been trying are reasonable with unreasonable responses.

Some specific responses:

re be11e and Quietgal: I'll try to come up with some alternate experiments. I've tried presenting lots of other papers where people get superior results doing the experiments the way I'm suggesting, and this is always dismissed as my ignorance on the "real issues".

re aimedwander: The problem is actually the exact opposite - it's the different things the big machine can do that aren't getting done. I make a sample which we could many potential experiments on, but C only runs the one that he thinks is most important, ignoring the one experiment I think is most important, even though as a group we agreed to run both.

re Quietgal: I already insist on sitting next to C to try and learn how to use the big machine. Unfortunately, he just enters a bunch of commands too quickly for me to read and when I ask for explanation gives some vague general non-answer.

re en forme de poire: I have every reason to believe that this is true. I really try to treat C respectfully, but then we collectively decide that we are going to run two experiments, and C only sets up his and not my experiment, and then it's really hard to maintain composure. What has worked recently is convincing A that the experiment is good, and then having A ask C to do it. Since the experiment doesn't come from me, then it's more likely to get run. I still have the problem of convincing A in the first place though - which can be similarly difficult.
posted by lab.beetle at 3:40 PM on September 28, 2011

Leaving these people is not flushing three years of your life anywhere. You have gained skills and confidence in your own knowledge. Staying any longer than necessary starts to look like wasted time, though.
posted by kavasa at 4:12 PM on September 28, 2011

Also, it sounds like you've got plenty of spine - you've insisted on your view plenty, you haven't just passively agreed that they're right. The problem is that they're not as bright as they think they are, and their egos are more important to them than the science.
posted by kavasa at 4:13 PM on September 28, 2011

One of the few arguments that works on bosses in general is speed - if you can convince A and B that having two people know how to run the big machine will speed things up, you might get them to tell C to train you properly. This may not apply if the machine has an autosampler, but it's worth thinking how to make this pitch. Any argument framed in terms of making the work go faster will have a better chance of persuading the bosses. (Never talk about saving effort, only time - bosses don't care how much work you have to do, only how long it will take you finish it.)

Honestly though, this sounds pretty intractable. C is definitely guarding his turf and the big bosses seem to have written you off for some reason. There may be some fundamental incompatibility in personality or priorities, but whatever the reason you should probably start shopping around for another position.
posted by Quietgal at 8:26 AM on September 29, 2011

Oh, wow. Yeah, it sounds like you have plenty of spine. It's definitely not you, and I agree: start thinking about other options.
posted by be11e at 2:17 PM on September 29, 2011

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