There is a problem called Maria, but she’s not a singing nun

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.


9 thoughts on “There is a problem called Maria, but she’s not a singing nun

  1. People without the ability to critically reflect their own role in things, who keep insisting that everything is happening because of actions of others instead of themselves are really unbelievable. They’re missing out on so much; if only they could listen to advise a bit more openly… Lots of people would be very happy to have such a mentor indeed!

  2. That is a person that will crater. Amazing story, far more common that we would like. Sometimes the denial of tenure gets their attention though.

  3. Sounds like just about every former post-doc’ from a BSD lab that I’ve ever met. You raise ’em up on sirloin and then get surprised when they go out on their own and refuse to eat hamburger. Lucky for me (I guess) I came from a hamburger lab 😉

    It’s actually a really solid mentoring lesson – JUST GET INSIDE THEIR HEADS! The #1 thing you can do to get on in this and any other field, is find out what drives people, what makes them tick, what they want (and to a lesser extent need), and figure out a way to make them feel like you’re delivering that thing. If you’re writing a grant, think about it from the reviewer’s perspective. If you’re teaching someone how to give a talk, the audience perspective trumps all else. If you’re setting exams, think how the question will sound relative to what you taught. If you’re learning how to negotiate with journals, realize how douchey a junior investigator sounds when they tell and EiC how to do their job. If you’re writing blog comments, try not to go on for ever so the reader gets bored. Oops!

  4. I work very closely with someone like this- this person is on the TT job search right now and is so frustratingly negative and has the attitude that everything happens TO her and that she has no control. This type of negativity is poison and I’m afraid she won’t get a job because of it, but I don’t know how to tell her to cut that shit out. Can these people be helped?

  5. Pingback: Update on Maria who is neither singing nor a nun but a problem | Mistress of the Animals

  6. Pingback: Advice to Young Faculty Appealing Tenure Decisions (or even just putting the papers in) | Mistress of the Animals

  7. Pingback: Maria’s Outcome and Success as a Junior Faculty | Mistress of the Animals

  8. Pingback: I can’t get funded without …. | Mistress of the Animals

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