Romeo and Juliet – in academia?

The internet is like a giant self-help handbook, and generally I read sections on “Why life sucks for a young scientists and what you can do about it”, “How to manage terrible PIs” and “How not to fail in a system that has failed you”. Last month, however, I came across a couple of really interesting posts from a new chapter, probably titled “This is how things look like from the other side”. First, I stumbled across a post from the Raj lab (Is My PI out to get me?), arguing that PIs actually do care, and try to make decisions that are – at least in the long run – in the interest of their students (even if we might not appreciate it now). Next, Dr Isis complained (Trainee-Level Fuckery of the Worst Kind…) about students who apply double standards regarding the supervision they expect from their PIs, and the supervision they supply to their own students. And finally, this entry on Scientific B-Sides (Managing Upwards Works! Until it Doesn’t) described the expectations of a PI towards his students/postdocs in a functional supervisor-student relationship: primarily that they should show initiative and be pro-active.

Then, last week, I attended a big reunion at my alma mater, talked to a bunch of people – and encountered a similar discrepancy between students/postdocs and PIs in real life. Students told me, how their supervisors did not give them with proper guidance (“She says she’s giving me academic freedom to develop my ideas – I think she just doesn’t care”) – young PIs complained how the standard had dropped (“When I started my PhD I spent 6 months in the library, trying to find an interesting problem to persue. If I told my students to do this today, there’d be a riot.”). Students complained that they did not receive any training, two PIs told me they had fired PhD students, because “he was really smart – but didn’t know how to hold a pipet/work at the bench”.

Juliet's balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

So, all this got me thinking: there is clearly a discrepancy between how PIs and students/postdocs perceive the current system. But why? Sure, students might lack the experience to understand that the hard way (“forced” upon them by their mentors) is the better way in the long run. Also, everybody is keen to blame “the other side” when things go bad. But could there be more to it? What if it’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet plot: we have the superficial storyline, the conflict between the families (the PI and the student) – but in reality it’s a conflict between generations. Continue reading

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And so they fail again? The EC’s Science 2.0 consultation

The European Commission (EC) has a complicated relationship with media campaigns. Two years ago, its #sciencegirlthing campaign and the accompanying ridiculous video earned it some pretty heavy criticism.


While it was generally agreed that intentions were good, when considering the practical realisation, the phrase a miss is as good as a mile sprung to mind (see here, here and here). After such an epic failure, you’d think the EC learnt its lesson when it comes to media campaigns. Alas, it is not so. Last week, they launched a public consultation on “Science 2.0” (#science20). Initially, I was thrilled: finally, decision makers wanted to hear my opinion on the topic. However, as I went through their website my heart sank: once again, they’ve got it all wrong, bunching together different aspects of Science 2.0, not differentiating sufficiently between different groups of respondents, and generally not quite getting the point why researchers are using online tools. Continue reading