The High & Mighty


Here is something I ponder: How fair is it to judge those within my scientific area of expertise with a heightened level of scrutiny?

My lab has a revolving door for postdoc candidates. They come in, and they go out. Another week, another postdoc candidate interview. And we get all different flavors, you know. Biologists, chemists, material scientists, and a whole assortment of engineers.

Short of noticing GlamourMag pubz on these candidates' CVs, I have no fucking clue as to whether or not most of them possess scientific merit. This is because they've written dissertations on topics that are by and large unfamiliar to me. Yes, I can ask them cursory questions about their work. They will satisfy me with some hand-waving and claims of greatness, and then I'll move on to the questions they're more likely to fuck up- such as why-do-you-want-to-work-here. In any case, I just can't really judge them based on their science.

But we do get some candidates that have worked on Mangoes as graduate students. And, of course, I am in a much better position to ask them probing questions about their experimental approach, downstream applications, and next steps. These lucky candidates are fully subject to my preconceived notions of what is Hot and Not in Mango science. It's very easy for me to tell whether or not their work is of the Me, Too variety. And it's easy for me to know whether or not they've been asking the most efficient questions.

For a variety of reasons, my lab is in a position to do top-notch Mango research. I like what we do; I respect what we do. But I also completely appreciate that not everyone has the money or the connections to do awe-inspiring Mango slicing studies. So, I try to give some of these candidates a break if it's clear to me that they've done the best they can with what they've been given.

Recently, I interviewed a candidate who was doing a Mango slicing Ph.D. project. Afterwards, one of my colleagues explicitly asked for my honest opinion of the candidate's work, and I gave it to him- I thought the research was uninspired and less-than-thorough. There was nothing really wrong with it, but nothing particularly eye-catching, either.

His response: "Well, aren't you high and mighty."

Sigh.

And so, when I'm in this position to judge, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. Am I supposed to be kind to my own kind? Or am I supposed to be honest? How can one maintain honesty without appearing snobbish and over-privileged?

Sometimes the ivory tower feels more like a prison.

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