Debate, academia and privilege

So, over the weekend, I was involved in a  debate surrounding open access publishing, about which people can feel very stongly. I won’t be talking much about the arguments of this debate, but about privilege, and silencing of younger, less privileged scientists and people. Now, one thing I will say, no matter who you are, or which side of any debate you are on, there are things that are unacceptable. Namely, ad hominen attacks, including telling someone the world would be better off without them. But what is also not ok is telling people (especially those who are junior to you) to shut up and fuck off cause they don’t agree with you. And that is what I feel happened to me.

This is, of course, all from my point of view, and feel free to call me out on any of my perceptions.

I came accross a tweet from someone (lets call him Bob) who claims they are not anti-open access, but who has reservations about the system. This is completely fair. However, I did not agree with the example in the tweet, so I quoted the tweet explaining why I thought it was an incorrect example. Later, I replied to another tweet, with Bob’s handle at the end. Both of these actions allowed the tweets, and my response to be visible to my followers. My reasoning behind this is that I think this is a good, and worthy debate to be having and thought that the points represented were at least worth thinking about for me, my followers, and Bob. Now, as I understand it, someone else (lets call him Sam) (who has thousands of followers, compared to my hundreds, and who is a huge advocate of the open access movement) had also quoted a tweet from Bob. What followed was pretty unacceptable, but it was likely what Sam intended. Bob was attacked by Sam’s followers, including being told the world would be better off without him. THIS IS NOT OK. I had not seen this until later when Bob pointed out that nobody had spoken against that. I think here, the responsibility lay with Sam to tell his followers to respond reasonably and not viscously, and anyone else who came accross that tweet should have spoken up, but did not.

So, based on his experiences with Sam, Bob was rather angry with me for broadcasting his tweets to my followers and refused to engage in debate with me. Keep in mind I was unaware of the previous attacks on Bob, and also completely uninvolved. Some may argue that quoting Bob’s tweets and making them visible to my followers is for the sole intent of my followers attacking Bob. This is untrue, and indeed is not what happened. I am a graduate student, an ‘underling’ if you will, and my honest intent was to spark conversation and debate. Bob told me to stop broadcasting his tweets to my followers and when I asked why he refused to engage with me any further. As a result, I felt silenced by this person. Is he threatened by opinions contrary to his, even from a mere grad student?

I looked further at Bob’s timeline, and he engages in this sort of behaviour with anyone who disagrees with him, even if the tweets are more ‘private’ conversations. Why tweet controversial opinions if you don’t intend to actually debate the issue? Why this constant defensiveness? I can’t even point out the privilege in many of Bob’s tweets for fear of further silencing by him. How do you have a conversation with someone so unwilling to listen? This sort of behaviour makes many feel unwelcome in academia, because what is academia and science without debate and solidly supported arguments?

New Beginings!

It’s been a while since I wrote a post, but everything suddenly got very busy after I (finally) accepted a PhD position!

I officially started my new project two weeks ago, but I did some reading in advance. I’m now based at the Limnology department of one of Austria’s universities which is actually in a small town a fair distance away from the actual uni. The department is right by a beautiful lake and I can get out in the outdoors very easily, hiking and swimming and summer, and hopefully I can go snowboarding in winter! My new lab is rather small, but really wonderful. We all work on different parts of the same project, which is sort of new for me, but so far it’s great.

The view from work.

My PhD plan is yet to be outline in detail, but I know what I need to do in the next few months. There is a conference at the end of August that I will be attending (so soon!), and my supervisor even encouraged me to submit an abstract for a poster, so I have been, and will continue to work pretty hard in the lab until the conference, and even afterwards in the hope of submitting a small paper to the conference proceedings. All very ambitious plans, but the lab work is fairly straight-forward, I am currently optimising a karyotyping protocol, and hopefull that gets ironed out soon. I have some nice stainings so far, but it’s still proving difficult to actually count the chromosmes.

Taken with my phone down the microscope, this is the nicest DAPI staining I’ve had.

I do apologise for the unorganised post, but I just thought I’d get back into writing again!

Let me know if you have any suggestions for how to improve my karyotyping protocol!

Valuing people

For the past 6 months or so, I’ve been searching for PhD opportunities and funding. This search can be disheartening and frustrating at the best of times, but sometimes, you read or experience things that make you really angry or frustrated. The worst of these infuriating occurances make me reconsider even sticking around long enough in academia for a PhD, let alone any further plans. Most of these events make me question my worth and how much others value me and my time; they range from neglecting to send out any notification of the application or interview outcome, to the most recent PhD advert I read (which has ultimately lead to this ranting blog post).

The basics of the advert were this: Cool, interesting PhD topic with the chance to develop my own project along the direction of the lab; competitive scholarship to cover full fees of any student of any nationality. But, that’s just it, the ad explicitly stated that the student must fund their living costs separately. There is no mention of other scholarships that may help, and an explicit statement that even part-time employment is not advised during a PhD. What I take from this, is that candidates are expected to be able to find 3+ years of living costs to support themselves without any assistance or indication where they may find help to find these funds from the PI/head of the lab.

To me, this advert sends two signals:

1) To get into science (remember, a PhD is just the start of a scientific career) one must have an incredible amount of money so that you can spend three unemployable years not earning anything but still somehow put food on the table and a roof over your (and maybe even your family’s) head.


2) PhD students are not valuable. They are not seen or treated as any other person is. Even without a university degree and really great grades, you can get a paying job, that (in most Western countries) will easily cover food, housing, medical expenses, and probably even a leasure activity or two. The fact that you are refusing this to a PhD student is essentially slavery.

I will not sugar-coat this: I AM a valuable person, I DO deserve a livable wage. No, I do not neccisarily expect this wage to come from the same funds as those that cover my fees, but at least take an interest in presenting me with some options. Had this advert had suggestions for where I might find a separate living-fees scholarship, I would have understood that you do value me and my time, but clearly, in this case, I am either expected to be rich or to starve.

I hope this does not come accross as entitled or concieted, but it is really frustrating and infuriating to constantly come up against a system that does not seem to value people. Without people, there is no science, and we need to start treating scientists better if we expect more enthusiastic minds to keep wanting to come through the ranks.

Note: I have not, and will not post any part of the advert that I saw. I am not interested in targetting anyone in particular. I just wish to bring to light an attitude that I keep coming up against in academia that I feel needs to be changed.

Writing and doubt

So, I haven’t posted in two weeks. Partly because I’ve been busy with work and with the Great PhD Search, but also because I’m not sure what to write about.

The point of this blog is for me to practise my writing and hopefully contribute to some science communication, but sometimes I wonder if I really am adding anything useful or original to the discussions. It could just be that I’ve been struggling a bit with the PhD search (I’ve been very actively searching since July) and that is getting me down, but starting a blog has also been a challenge for me.

If anyone has any tips for regular blogging and keeping the ideas running, feel free to send them my way!

On Failure

I realise I haven’t done an introduction blog post, but I’m planning on just introducing myself and my story as we go! But if you’d like an intro post to get to know me a bit better, just let me know J

This post will be about my perspective on the struggles of academia and accepting failure, which I hope this is helpful to anyone struggling with similar situations.

Last year, I was doing a PhD, but a few months ago various things lead to my decision to quit. This blog isn’t an appropriate medium for discussing the details of this part of the story, but it was a tough decision for me, and those few months were rather stressful. What follows is a retrospective look at how to deal with such problems

Throughout my whole PhD, I struggled to come to terms with Imposter Syndrome, which seems to badger so many in this line of work. I believe that this feeling of inadequacy and not being good enough or smart enough for what you are doing comes from the background of most PhD students and academics. Those of us that choose this intellectually challenging career path tend to come from a background where we have usually been top of the class, with many people complimenting us on being so “brainy”. Often this becomes our biggest point of pride and, for me, was a huge part of my identity. I loved (and still do) being smart and being able to figure out different challenges! Rather suddenly, you transition from being in the top portion of your academic peers, to being mostly surrounded by those on par, or even smarter than you (or just further along their career path). I think the best way to combat these feelings of inadequacy is to first realise the difference in your environment and who your peers are. Something else that helped me gain a better perspective was to find friends outside of academia, it makes you realise that other people struggle with similar feelings and that this is all just a normal part of finding your feet in the real world. I have some great friends that gave me great advice, and they had no experience with academic career paths and pressures. Overall, I’d say this variety in your circle of friends isn’t just important for your mental health, I think its just important to stretch your legs outside of the ‘Ivory Tower’ for a bit.

Leading on from this, quitting my PhD brought a lot of these feelings to the surface for a while and it was very difficult to not feel like a failure. It took a while, but I came to realise that my year was not a failure and not a waste of time. I realised that a PhD isn’t just an individual effort, and if anybody tries to lay the blame at one person’s feet, they don’t entirely understand how science is almost always a team effort. From my perspective, everyone in the scientific team (whether that be for a PhD or a collaboration on a paper) should know where they stand with the others and expectations should be clear. If someone is lacking in one area, give them a gentle heads up before things get drastically bad. Constructive feedback can be very difficult to give and receive, but it’s vital to any team being successful. If you feel like communication is lacking, don’t be afraid to speak up, it can be terrifying, but this goes back to the feedback and constructive criticism. Those overseeing your education and research may still be learning themselves, so it’s important to bear this in mind. But if it does come down to it that quitting is the best option, don’t you dare think you’ve failed! For me, I see it as a learning opportunity. I’ve learnt how to best tackle a PhD, and I’ve picked up so many great lab and research skills. Overall, I’m ready to tackle PhD attempt two, and I’m sure this one will end not with quitting, but with a new title before my name!

Lastly, if any of this has in any way brought forth thoughts that you would like to discuss, please reach out to your support network. Or if you’d like a different perspective, I will do my best to reply to any correspondence that comes my way.