I went out to dinner this weekend with a speaker in a related department in which I hold a courtesy appointment. The speaker and I have discussed a joint project, and the very junior faculty hosting him went out of her way to invite me. I was surely the oldest at the table by 15-20 years. Most of the people were junior pre-tenure faculty.
Maria is not in my department, but the related one. She knows me. I have tried to talk with her, and she says “yes, yes, yes” but doesn’t show. I have reached the point in general that I re-iterate my availability, but acknowledge that jr faculty are grown-ups and I am not their mother or their priest. Maria’s documents are in for tenure. It is a hard case. She has funding, but not the expected level of publications (about 6 at this place). Her chair is not evil, but not warm and fuzzy either. He has supported her, and came to me to ask me to talk to her about publishing. She came from a Glamour school, and did a postdoc with one of the biggest of the BSD’s in her discipline. She thinks she should be publishing in Nature or Science, and submits everything there first, and has tried to argue with editors about rejections. Our discussion about publication was not a productive mentoring session.
Last night a dinner she said all sorts of things that set my teeth on edge. She trashed her chair, said no one gave her support or mentoring. She said that she had had such bad problems with a postdoc (the postdoc, she had only one) that she had to throw out a 18 months of data (note:I have thrown out data, everyone throws out data that you discover is bad for one reason or another, but a year and a half? that’s bad lab management in my view). I was shocked. Then she said that she was having trouble with the current postdoc she had. This is the point the conversation got weird. Or interesting. Or sad. Depending on your perspective.
The speaker, who was slightly older, decided to try and help, and was giving great advice. I was impressed at his ability to frame the problem in a way that made it seem like this was something everyone, including him had to learn. He said we all give people the gift we would like to get. But when we work with others, we have to learn to give them the gift they want, even if we think it is a tacky velvet painting of Elvis. He said we all talk to people in the way that we would understand if we were listening. And she just looked at him and said “I tried that and it didn’t work”. And he reached to an analogy about kids, and how they sometimes need guidance even if they don’t understand. And she interrupted and said “my child is not like that, he listens and reasons with me”. Someone else chimed in and said that her kid was very special and before I could laugh, he said “I don’t believe that, my kids are beautiful and special and incredible, but they are not perfect and they don’t always listen” and she said “no”. Maria wasn’t being rude, she was just totally sure she was right.
Finally the guest just said “no matter what I say, you’ve done it and it doesn’t work, all you can say is no” and she replied “No, thats not true”. I kept from laughing, but the other junior faculty nodded. I am less concerned about Maria in particular. She has made her bed, and I think it is unlikely that she will have any choice but to lie in it. I am more concerned about the other jr faculty sitting around the table, soaking up this negative attitude.
The worst bit of the evening came when Maria maintained that the reason she couldn’t get into glamour journals, and had trouble publishing in the next tier, was that there were too many old reviewers who were stuck in the last century’s science and could not stand new stuff. I rolled my eyes. She went on and on about how wretched the “Old People” are and that it would be good if they all just left. They were lousy mentors and unimaginative. I shook my head and went to the bathroom. As many of my readers know, I think being an asshole crosses generational lines.
I think at this point, the most productive thing I can do is to reach out to the other jr faculty (one from my dept) and say simply if you want to talk about this, come see me.