On Dealing with Parents (and other people who don't "get it")
0 comment Saturday, May 24, 2014 |
DGT has a post up on relating to non-sciencey parents. I think that her oregano analogy probably works well for those non-sciencey folks who are trying to get a handle on what you do and why you're good at it (or not, I guess, but do parents really even consider this possibility?).I've had some recent frustrations with my own non-sciencey set. They are well-meaning folks but in spite of my best efforts to explain to them what is going on in my life, in my research, in my career, they're just not getting it.I'm fairly fortunate to have parents that do "get it" with respect to the value of education (they're probably where I got my ideas about this after all). Not everyone is so lucky in this respect. They aren't asking me what I'm going to still more school for, nor suggesting that all this education is just going to give me "big ideas".Both my parents have bachelors' degrees in a rather obscure applied engineering sub-discipline. They both started working in that obscure sub-discipline right out of college. My dad has continued to work in the same industry ever since, though not always in an engineering capacity. My mom quit to have and raise kids, then went back to school, earned a Masters' in Education, and now teaches middle school science. So they're not terribly far removed from higher education and sciencey/engineering type fields. But neither of them have any direct experience with the kind of science I do, or the kind of degree I'm getting. They have never worked in a capacity where they need to publish peer-reviewed papers for career survival, nor have their educational experiences included an open-ended time frame like my Ph.D. in Mystery Bioscience.I get the usual interrogation about when I will actually be finished. It doesn't matter how many times I have explained that my Ph.D. is dependent upon my success at publishing relevant papers, which is in turn dependent upon the success of my experiments, which is in turn dependent upon how well I design and execute them in addition to myriad other factors outside of my control like whether or not our lasers have burnt out, the relative amorousness of my experimental subjects, the alignment of Jupiter and Neptune, and which direction the wind is blowing. My mother remains convinced that I do know when I'll be finishing but that I'm just not telling her because I don't want her to come to my defense (which isn't even true - I don't know where she got this idea). Like my dissertation and I are planning to elope or something. After several years of this infuriating questioning, I finially snapped and told her I would hang up the phone the next time she asked me the dreaded so-when-are-you-going-to-finish question. I mitigated this offense by promising that she would be the seventh to know (after myself, my advisor, and my committee members) if when I ever establish a defense date. This is a common experience for most grad students in my field. The question never really goes away, even after threats (no, I've never made good on that threat and hung up on my mother though she persists in asking The Question). The well-adapted learn to stop hearing it.I don't fault my mother for asking this question. I know it comes from concern and a desire to be supportive. I'm very fortunate that I've always had parents who take an interest in my success. I know that's what this is about.But sometimes I wish they could stand in my shoes, or at least really truly listen when I tell them how it is. It's not like we've never talked about what it is that I do, or how this whole Ph.D. thing really works. They are genuinely interested so they ask all the time, and frankly, we've talked it to death. But they still don't "get it". I suppose that they can't really, never having been here themselves. But it's also that they're very good at projecting onto me their own experiences. If they can find a scrap of commonality between what I'm telling them and something in their own lives then it's "Oh, your X sounds just like my Y, so This Is How It Must Be." No, mom and dad, it's not like that. You asked and I'm telling you how it is and you're just not hearing me.My mom also falls into the trap of giving me advice on how to handle the various stresses of my career. Again, I know that she does this out of love. It pains her to know when I'm stressed out and exhausted, and she's trying to help in the best way she knows how. Which is to project the AA that she knew as a child on to AA's now adult professional person. Which is usually not very helpful.I was speaking with her on the phone a few weeks ago when all the shit hit the fan with my experiments. You remember, the trouble-shooting epic? Yeah. I was telling her what was happening and how frustrating it feels to not be able to get anything to work. How it feels like that light at the end of the tunnel (in this case, publication of the ManuBeast) is just slipping away. Her advice: "Just do it, AA! Get it done!" My mother, the cheerleader. I know that this was the only thing that she knew to say for encouragement, but geez mom, did you even hear what I was saying about all the work I'm putting into this right now and how all of my experiments are failing? If the problem were "just doing it" I would already be done!I was speaking with her again recently (while in the lab collecting data in the late hours of Sunday evening) and she asked how things were going with the ManuBeast. I told her that I'd been successful in my trouble shooting and things were working again, but that the next big hurdle would be to convince GrAdvisor that we should just drop BullshitExperiment for all the reasons I've previously mentioned. She said to me, "You know AA, you've always been such a perfectionist. You're always so ciritical, especially of yourself. I was just telling YourFormerElementarySchoolTeacher at the community picnic last week 'Oh, you know AA. It takes her forever to finish anything because it's never quite good enough to meet her standards. I suppose it will be the same with her Ph.D.'"AAAAAaaaaaaaaaarrrrrggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!First of all, I prefer "recovering perfectionist". I know that keeping impossible standards creates a lot of unnecessary stress in my life so I try to aspire to make things as good as they can possibly be, but not more so. Yes, I suppose it is true that I am a bit of a perfectionist. But you know what - that's a large part of what makes me a good scientist. Those high standards mean that I'm not going to write and submit a paper based on sub-par data. Which is a good thing, because I have to meet not only my own standards to be successful, but those of a whole boat load of other people. Journal editors, reviewers, my committee memebers, my advisor. To some extent, my success in this endeavor depends on meeting their standards. And this is a Good Thing, to have external validation of the merit of one's work. Especially when one's work provides the foundation for future understanding. Especially when one's work contrbutes to the truth, as best we can currently understand it. It's important not to do slip-shod work. This is not a college term paper, for which I can say, "making an A on this paper is not worth my sanity today. I can justify cutting myself some slack and taking a B on this one." This isn't a class where the only thing riding on my efforts is a letter on my transcript. But it's easier for her to frame it in this way. She's a teacher. This is what she knows.I don't really know how to make it any more clear to her that my stress, the pressure I'm putting on myself, my crazy working hours....these things are not me being crazy. They are what I need to do to make this happen. It will not just take care of itself.

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