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Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition Chapter 10: Loyalty, Subterfuge, Manipulation, and Sabotage

You know, most of this time as I've stomped, glided, written, and trudged my way through my scientific career, I have found that when you work hard and have strokes of luck and genius every now and then, you move ahead, if ever so slowly. I have expected excellence, both from myself (which has caused it's own share of heartache when I fell short) and from others. How easy it is to forget that highly educated people, including scientists and engineers, will work you over just like anyone else when given the chance.

Out here in postdoc land, we're in career limbo--semi-independent but still in need of collaborators at or above our current level who can provide stimulating conversation and/or experimental techniques that broaden and support the scope of our inquiry. But what happens when a collaborator becomes adversarial and volatile? Let's explore.

Has this ever happened to you? You're new to your lab, and you find yourself trying to get up to speed on the techniques and protocols necessary for conquering the world. People with plenty of experience--other postdocs or senior graduate students--are around to help, but you detect subterfuge. Someone shows you the ropes--for a particular instrument, say--but later you discover that critical information about the protocol was missing.

It could be completely benign. Maybe your fellow researcher was rushed and not fully present during training. Or not. Your presence on the project means you could be stealing some of their thunder or usurping control, especially if they're at or beyond the limits of their abilities. The balance in laboratory science is delicate, and nobody wants you--a newbie--showing them up. Lack of information on the protocol leaves you unable to contribute effectively and wastes precious time. Spun the wrong way by a jealous co-worker (let's not pretend that jealousy, rage, frustration, and competition don't happen in science), this situation could be used to make you look inept.

Sometimes it's not your own enforced ineptitude but the (suspicious) incompetence of others that causes problems. I work with Scientist Z (SciZ) and Superdupervisor K (SuperK)* on a number of aspects of my current projects. Over the past year, it has become extraordinarily clear that their mutual loyalty obscures the fact that SciZ is not always capable of completing and understanding the experimental tasks at hand. SciZ has a Ph.D. just as I do and says things like, "I'm not a technician; don't treat me like one." But SciZ (who, along with SuperK, is an expert in the experimental technique under consideration) has delivered relevant data, correctly interpreted, just 20% of the time, at best. For someone who's an expert and "not a technician," this level of incompetence is surprising--especially given that I successfully repeat the experiments that SciZ failed at. It makes me wonder: Is it ineptitude or something worse?

To add insult to ineptitude, SciZ's behavior outside of things scientific is erratic. Obsequious and self-effacing to superiors ("I have so many papers I'm working on"), SciZ is rude, verbally abusive, and calculating with subordinates (including sanitation and support staff, as well as postdocs like me). I never know which of the 31 flavors of crazy I'm going to see. This postdoc--me--may have two faces, but SciZ has shown about 15. Offhand and off-color remarks about my competence and the competence of others flow from SciZ's mouth. If I were insecure about my abilities, I'd probably have an ulcer by now. If I were committed to staying the course, I would be in even more serious distress. Has management been notified? Yes, but that's where this gets even more interesting.

The worst thing about the situation is the behavior of SuperK. The two go way back, apparently. Given evidence of bad behavior, inappropriate commentary, and poor experimental technique--evidence that I and others have presented--SuperK has explained everything away by saying either that SciZ is too busy with too many things and needs to work on focusing or that SciZ has always been this way and won't change and should be accommodated. Loyalty to SciZ--and keeping SciZ in SciZ's current position--transcends all other considerations, including scientific ones. SuperK tries to keep SciZ in check and heads off criticisms that could make it further up the chain of command. Of course it helps that SuperZ is in the chain of command, so this person's word is valued more than the complaints of others.

To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement. I had a great deal of respect for SuperK. Although not my direct supervisor, this person brought me in, took the time to meet with me regularly to assess my progress, and listened to my concerns about SciZ. (There has been a confrontation or two--SciZ rabid dog, me unsuspecting rabbit.) But I realize now that SuperK never moved on my concerns, offering only that I would have to find a way to deal with the situation on my own.

Things came to a head recently when a very precious sample was lost due to poor technique. SciZ will never admit that the loss was due to SciZ's error, and, in fact, I'll never know whether the setback was due to ill intent or ineptitude. But whatever the case, it shows that one poisonously crazy monkey can stop the show, or at least slow it down.

There is some good news. Over the past year, the rest of the team has come to recognize my ability to deliver relevant data, interpret it properly, and present my findings in a number of venues. As a result of this recent mishap, SciZ is looking a bit more exposed and a great deal less necessary--although I doubt any major changes are imminent, except for those involving me.

I've seen favoritism, academic nepotism, competitiveness, egomania, and incompetence, but never have I seen dancing around a single person at this scale. Even as I make moves to leave and do my best to minimize my interactions with SciZ, I am at a complete loss for how to deal with SuperK's fall from grace, as perceived by me. Suggestions, anyone?

Scientists behaving badly indeed., signing off.

* Names and genders have been eliminated to cut down on stereotyping. Insert your own scientific villains at will. –M.P.D.

Is it even remotely possible that some of you don't already realize that Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym?

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Images. Top: Photodisc. Middle: Comstock

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700153