Oh, Won't You be My Mentor?


Now, I try my best not to be a woe-is-me type person. I am definitely more of an acknowledge-what-you-don't-like-and-do-your-best-to-change-that-shit kind of person. And along those lines, I've always dug the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Now, I'm not the praying type, but that is one hell of a prayer. Those words sum up everything that I believe I need to be happy. Acceptance. Courage. Wisdom.

So what does this have to do with today?

Today, this week, this month- I've been trying to acknowledge, to get a handle on the limitations of the lab in which I work. In my last post, I spoke of my frustration with having done a crapload of experimental work in the last 2+ years, yet having no submitted manuscripts. A couple of the ensuing comments struck me:

GeekMommyProf writes, "Taking on high-risk projects is admirable, but you need to balance them with bread-and-butter work. You advisor should help cultivate in you how to strike a balance."

PhysioProf chimes in, "It sounds to me like you need more and/or better guidance from your mentor(s), who certainly have better developed senses for the relative impact of different projects, the relative likelihood of success of different projects, and the relative time/effort that is going to get sucked up by different projects."

Well, shit guys.

Thinking about it, I totally get it. I'm a postdoc, not a PI. I'm doing my best to get there, but I could use a little help. The problem, you see, is that there is little mentoring available to me in my lab.

Aside from meeting with my direct supervisor ~ once every 2 months, the only real "mentors" I have are my fellow postdocs. The lab system of which I am a part cultivates many positive qualities in the independent, collaborative researcher. I don't really think I'd want to be part of another lab.

But the thing that is lacking, of course, is guidance. The more I think about this, the sadder I get, and then the whole "woe-is-me" thing starts happening. Which is retarded, because I cannot inherently blame my lack of publications on my lack of mentorship. But I can wish that I had a real mentor.

The problem is that wishing for something won't get me jack shit. I mean, even the serenity prayer doesn't tell you to wish for something. It tells you to screw your head on straight, and then to accept or to act.

So what do I do? Anyone who knows me would tell you that I'm not very good at accepting things, so let's assume, in this case, that I need to act. Options (that I can think of) include:
  1. Trying to meet with my PI. I have had 2 meetings with my PI since I joined the lab, each of which has run approximately 10 minutes. I have doubts about the willingness of someone this time-pressed to give me the attention I'd need to help sort through my 5 projects. I know some people in my lab actually go to him. But there is something in me that is loathe to consume his time for anything other than A) a serious problem or B) a serious success.
  2. Trying to meet more/get more out of my relationship with my direct supervisor. I am in regular email contact with him, and have frequent enough meetings with him that he is generally kept abreast of my experimental accomplishments and failures. However, he is in charge of a lot of people, and he simply cannot afford to devote much mental energy to me and my issues.
  3. Calling up my grad advisor and trying to get him to mentor me. But, oh, how I don't want to do this because it's just not his job anymore. I still ask him for advice on stuff that isn't directly related to my research (aka- should I write a review for Journal A? Which topic do you think is better for my TT research statement?). But I don't want to ask him for advice on my current research. It's not his area of research, and it just reeks of neediness and incompetence to me.
  4. Asking my grandmother, or possibly her cat, to step in as my advisor.

What do you think, internets? If you are an advisee in a large lab, how do you find mentorship? If you are an advisor, what are you willing to do for your past and present mentees in terms of project advice?

The End of Another Notebook


I'm assuming most people like to gauge their productivity at work in some way or another- maybe certain people like to look at manuscripts published, grants submitted, money awarded, or maybe people just like to acknowledge the passing of time (aka I've been here 2 years, so I must have done something useful?).

I measure my productivity in notebooks.

I am a bit of a lab notebook freak. I keep a beautiful notebook- well laid out, informative, attractive, thorough, and easy-to-follow. My notebooks offer hypotheses, detailed experimental procedures, results, and conclusions for each experiment. Let me be immodest for a moment and tell you that I often receive compliments on my notebooks.

My notebooks are 152 pages each. They house approximately one experiment per page. This morning, I came to the end of my third notebook. So that's a good 450 experiments. For those of you who aren't doing work in biology- that's a shitton of experiments because we're talking about multi-day operations here.

Notebook 1 = 16 months
Notebook 2 = 6 months
Notebook 3 = 6 months

So, I've got all of these notebooks, stuffed to the motherfucking nuts, and I've got *zero* submitted manuscripts. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

What motherfucking good is it to be this productive when you don't produce coherent, reproducible stories?!!? And so, with the end of my third notebook comes serious depression, and maybe a bit of a kick in the ass.

WHY do I have three notebooks worth of data and no submitted manuscripts?

1. We've got a lot of funding here, and I make a point to work on high-risk projects. I figure that if I can't do it here, then I can't do it anywhere. And, as it turns out, I often can't do it. Often, the shit just doesn't work. And of course I persevere tooth and nail because that's the way I am, which just draws out the long and painful path to failure.

2. The shit I work on is not particularly reproducible. I get big error bars and redo certain experiments many times in order to feel confident about the data I'm presenting.

3. Sometimes, I am so focused on the short-term goals of the project, that I forget about long-term goals and do experiments that are unnecessary and/or inefficient and/or unable to answer the questions I am asking.

4. Sometimes, I bite off more than I can chew. I am not a molecular biologist, and neither is anyone else in my lab, so I really didn't have any business getting involved with Western blots, PCR, etc this past year. Should it really take 6 months to figure out why your Western blot isn't working? No, it should not. Fuck.

And so, that is how I manage to be productive without being productive. I promised myself that I would submit 3 manuscripts by June of this year. Fail.

Fail, fail, fail.

Lately, I just feel like a big failure.

I need to pull my head out of my ass and figure out a way to turn at least some of this data into a couple of stories.