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The Me-first generation needs perspective June 11, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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I often look at the Science Careers discussion board:

http://scforum.aaas.org/

Most of the posters are young scientists, mainly grad students and postdocs. One continuous theme from them is that professors are mean, unfair, uncaring, poor mentors, as nauseum. These young scientists think that their research projects are theirs to do and manage, even to the point of publishing on their own if they choose to. Some practice and advocate not sharing data, methods, or instrumentation with labmates or the professors. It is theirs, afterall.

The egocentricity of the Me-first generation is rampant in academic labs. Rather than accepting that the professor is more knowing, experienced, and the boss, they think the lab and much of the departments, universities, and science world revolves around them in a pre-Copernican solar system, if the science world works correctly.

The new attitudes of confrontation, disrespect being unacceptable, and generally poor skills at working as part of a team manifest itself in being hurt whenever anyone will not drop everything to help them, or thinking that anyone asking about their work is either planning to steal ideas and credit or out to get them.

A lot of these gripes, these whiny rantings are about things that have been the ways of academic labs for many decades. Good research professors are not always kindly, patient mentors. Coworkers are not always altruistic. Credit is often shared in ways that a student cannot fathom. Professors have schedules and budgets to balance. The pay is not as high as outside, the benefits are less or nonexistent, and the hours are long. Get on with the science, get over these less-important things, and get through that phase of your career!

If I were a research professor today, I’d definitely interview each grad student or postdoc under consideration. Technical skills would be a minor portion of each. The bulk would be attitude and personality assessing to winnow out anyone steeped heavily in these me-first attitudes.

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Comments»

1. AlchemX - June 11, 2009

Wow, you weren’t kidding about the griping.

I agree professors do not need to be awesome but they should not be sadistic either. I’ve seen enough sadistic crap done, that I’m kind of embarrassed to be in graduate school. Kind of lowly feeling, so I can see how the griping comes about in some cases.

2. organikchemist - June 11, 2009

I agree that the “newer” generation does seem to be a bit more egocentric than its predecessors. But, as a member of the greatest punk-rock generation ever (Gen-X), I would be remiss if I pinched the boomers ( I assume you are a member) a little. Heck, I am obligated to 🙂

Changing attitudes is not something that is necessarily bad. For example: The company I work, like most today, has it’s HR policies set by 50+ yr old men and women who have been working since they were 21. One thing that routinely gets asked for by the rank and file is for the instillation of paternity leave (rank and file = younger than HR). Gen-X (and later) are quite well known for their efforts to improve their work-life-balance (or at least the perception of it). We work to live. We feel that spending 4 wks at home helping with a newborn is not an unreasonable request. However, this is always shot down because (wait for it…) “this is not a typical practice in the industry”.

IS it really all that bad if someone gets offended if their adviser is racist or sexist? Or is this counted as “whining”. (Of course, I also 100% agree with about the forums be a breeding ground for academic whining, ESPECIALLY with the biologically tainted folks).

In the end, attitudes will change as the new generations begin to fill the upper ranks. I don’t know if it will be good or bad, but it is certainly inevitable.

Good rant BTW.

3. fetzthechemist - June 11, 2009

I am not a gen X chemist. I am one of those 50+ year-olds, but my general management style as a supervisor was to give and take as long as the work got done. Telecommuting when a report was the work most needed was common, even fifteen years ago. I do believe in some work-personal life balance. Paternity and family leave are not major issues where I live (California) because the law says so.

As far as sadistic professors, they are a blot on the profession. But they seldom hide under rocks, either. Anyone signing on with a known bad professor is not an innocent in the matter. Bad professors ought to be ostracized by students and their research groups wither.

But bad bosses are legion. Of my articles in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry on careers, the one that had the most downloads by far, something like 600, was how to deal with a bad boss. This was when Spring charged something like 10 Euros to download the articles, too.

Life is adapting and optimizing situations. The world doesn’t cater to you just because you are young, even if your life has been pretty easy to date.

4. AlchemX - June 11, 2009

Generally the bad professors/bosses do stick out, I’ve managed to avoid it myself. But it’s still frustrating to know that one floor up from me, I might have punched someone out by now.

I do think that most graduate students in the me generation will do just fine once out of graduate school. As far as Gen-X people being better/worse than 50+ it’s a mixed bag from what I’ve seen.

At my institution it’s been bad, to much ego, very “me first.” Grad students are torn down and it’s personal. I never heard of this from the older gen, work was hard but the science came first. But at smaller institutions things seem better, professors genuinely try to avoid becoming a pain. I’m around new prof’s aged 29-mid thirties, I’m not kidding about that 29 yr old either.

5. fetzthechemist - June 11, 2009

My grad school years were a mixed bag, too. My research advisor was a big-name in analytical, had dozens and dozens of PhDs before us, over 200 papers, lots of awards. He was generally nice, but could be hard on certain people. My oral final was 45 minutes, a piece of cake. The next guy from our group, with essentially the same committee had one of over six hours and a lot of the questions were from our advisor.

But the big eyeopener there was the ego maniac big-name academics. There was a real civil war going on in the department, two factions that hated each other to the point that student picked a person from the other faction to be on a dissertation committee. That was suicidal. Many professors bailed out and left, the Deans of Arts and Sciences and the grad school actually removed the department chair because he supported one faction and kept the war going.

It was all so crazy that students just hunkered down and did the work. No complaints, just get done and out.

AlchemX - June 11, 2009

Definitely a good attitude to have, even now.


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