On “Tough Love” in Science

My very first task in the lab as an undergrad was to pull layers of fungus off dozens of cups of tomato juice. My second task was PCR, at which I initially excelled. Cock-sure after a week of smaller samples, I remember confidently attempting an 80-reaction PCR, with no positive control. Every single reaction failed. Which is to say that science doesn’t let you go for long without failure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this PCR, partly because I’m returning to molecular work after a seven year gap. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about how my bosses responded to that failed reaction. I don’t remember the precise details but I suspect my immediate mentors, other lab members, regaled me with their own “shit happens” stories. I vividly recall a flash of disappointment across the face of one of my PIs, probably mourning all that wasted Taq. That combination—“this happens to all of us, but it really would be best if it didn’t happen again”—was exactly what I needed to keep going and to be more careful.

In the time since I was a college freshman, I’ve learnt how widely varied different academic mentoring styles are. And my overwhelming feeling in the face of what I’ve learnt is gratitude at having dodged the “tough love” bullet. “Tough love” is the idea that because doing science requires a tough skin, it is a mentor’s role to provide the stimulus for that skin toughening. I know that I would have wilted under such mentoring, and I know plenty of others who feel similarly.

But “tough love” mentoring in science seems to persist so much as to be mostly unremarked upon. Take, for example, this excerpt from Hope Jahren’s widely acclaimed new memoir, Lab Girl:

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Either you think this is business-as-usual in a science lab, or, like me, you read this and worry that all you are destined to be is an adequate scientist, that you are one of the many who will be weeded out of science because you aren’t tough enough, aren’t dedicated enough, and do consider your time (literally the only thing we’re guaranteed in this world) of some value.

If my first experiences in science had been like this, I doubt I would be doing a Ph.D. I took a quick poll of about 15 of my grad student and postdoc friends, asking them to imagine how they’d react in that situation. Not a single one of them believed that they’d have stayed that extra hour. Of course, your mileage may vary—maybe something like this was your first experience in science, and you thrived because of it. And having mentored a grand total of four undergrads, it obviously isn’t my place to tell anyone else how to mentor their students. But I do know how I’d respond as a mentee, and I do wonder who ends up being excluded from science when tests of this manner are devised for students to “pass”.

As my failed 80-reaction PCR and many subsequent failures have shown me, science is tough enough without the hurdles placed before us, consciously or unconsciously, by our peers and superiors. As a community, we need to figure out which of the tasks we require of scientists-in-training are vital to making us good scientists, and which serve simply as hoops to jump through, excluding anyone who isn’t a very particular type of person. This is especially vital because the track record of who is consistently underrepresented in science is clear.

We’ll likely never all agree on how much tough love is the right amount to prepare someone for a career in science. Our disagreement is a good thing, and will provide a range of mentoring environments in which a range of people will thrive. But students entering science need to know that this range exists, that tough love isn’t the only way that scientists are trained. There are alternatives to being thrown in the deep end, and it’s possible to have the time and space to learn to swim, to gradually grow a tougher skin, before you sink. There is no single story on the basis of which you should decide not to enter the water at all.

And if it’s true that mentoring in science is, at present, overwhelmingly tough love-ish, is that something we want to change? Yes, if we’re at all committed to making science accessible to people from varied backgrounds, and ensuring that they (we) have the space to thrive.

Thanks to the eleven people, spanning a range of career stages, who read this post over and offered comments/suggestions before it went public.

P.S. Letting fungus grow on tomato seeds mixed in tomato juice them is a clever way to get the gelatinous coat off the tomato seeds, which helps the seeds germinate without rotting

P.P.S. Dr. Jahren has a couple of questions for me (and you) in response to this post:

  1. Amongst theoreticians (as opposed to — or perhaps in addition to — laboratory or field experimentalists), it is very common to require a graduate student to take difficult course(s) in higher math, coding, statistics etc., without any guarantee that the techniques taught will be directly useful or even invoked during the dissertation project, under the expectation that what the student learns from struggling with the material is a useful general enrichment.  For some students, these types of courses serve as roadblocks to progressing.  Does this at all relate to the tough-love mentoring phenomenon you name and describe?
  2. The extremely competitive funding situation in science research has a direct effect on the amount of productivity that must be proposed and then delivered in order to “make ends meet” in the laboratory for each 3-year cycle (e.g., the numbers-budget breakdown that I offered in Part 2 is illustrative).  To what extent does this provide a structural constraint on the amount of time and energy available for the trial and error process that is so important during learning?  Would changing the availability and mechanism of funding for students have an effect on tough-love mentoring?

I’ll be pondering these questions; in the meanwhile, chime in with your thoughts in the comments below!

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7 thoughts on “On “Tough Love” in Science

  1. Thoughts from a reader in response to the two questions:

    “1. Sure I can see how being required to take hard and possibly irrelevant courses could be a roadblock to some students. I think this is tough love if:
    The advisor provides no help or mentorship with this topic (It’s my intuition that the advisor will require difficult courses because they are in the advisor’s wheelhouse)
    The advisor doesn’t see the content of the course as ever being possibly enriching to the student whatsoever, and is just assigning this to be sadistic
    (Aside: I haven’t worked with pure theoretical mathematicians, but the engineers I know who work on theory don’t do this.)

    2. Yes, the funding cycles and huge overheads require advisors to manage their time conscientiously, but setting students up with a project that they know is going to fail just because it’s more efficient than letting them fail on their own is manipulative.

    Ultimately, what is the purpose of the failure scenario? I would hope that it is to cultivate an intuition for when an academic project should be invested in further, rather than to test the grit of the student.

    When I was at [academic institution] (which is acutely subject to the whims of funding), I was allowed to explore small projects on my own, and had regular meetings with my advisor to assess whether the project merited further investigation or ought to be abandoned. I felt like we were in it together rather than a) letting down my advisor by failing or b) being set up for failure by my advisor.

    Cultivating this intuition can also come from working on another person’s project. Many labs will have a new student work to complete unfinished work from a previous student, and the frustrations that they encounter with data analysis provides them with wisdom for designing their own future experiments.

    To sum up, I think that when advisors and student face problems in a project together, this can be a useful learning experience for honing the student’s sense of academic investment strategy. When the personality of the student is being judged rather than the science, I think this is problematic and can easily lead to imbalances in diversity.”

  2. Lot’s of food for thought here!

    I’ve just started working with two undergrads. I suspect a lot of people think I am doing too much, too fast, but after reading this, I realized I’m doing for them what was done for me. I took an ornithology class as junior and loved it. With the support of my professor, I found a paid summer field research position on the other side of the country and took it. I did everything. I did prepped materials for the field, collected data, made decisions about where and when to collect data, coordinated efforts, was collectively responsible for getting an entire season’s worth of data with minimal oversight. I had to: we were working in teams of two across four mountain ranges. The lead investigator gave birth about three weeks after we arrived. She’d check it with us occasionally and was available when we got back to the lab, but otherwise we were on our own (this was just at the beginning of the cell phone age and only I had one and it didn’t work in most places unless you held it off a cliff).

    Today, my research project is spread even wider. I have about ~30 sites this season and it really only takes 1 person to survey most of them. Having undergrads always with me, always holding my hand does not benefit me in anyway. While they get the experience, I don’t get additional data. I took my undergrads in the field a 1-2 times until they felt comfortable with the protocols, and then they are independent when we both feel they’re ready. We schedule when they go out, they text me upon arrival and departure, I touch base with them and review what they did and what questions they had after the first few site visits.

    I am up front with the mistakes I make and the things I don’t know. Because I am trusting them, I need them to trust me. I need to know they will come to me when things don’t go well (as they will).

    But they’re in the thick of it. They’re doing real science. They’re not stuck in a lab only responsible for washing glassware for a semester. And I’m looking ahead to see what more I can do for them. I think my next steps will be to sit down with them and see what they want to get from the experience now they have their feet wet. I’ll probably also share a few papers with them so they can develop a deeper scientific understand of what we’re doing and why.

    But that was my first research experience and first [science] mentoring experience.

  3. I also side-eyed that passage… mostly because for me, literally one of the most helpful pieces of advice my undergrad PI ever gave me when I was starting out was that when you’re frustrated and angry with a project, it’s okay to switch gears, drop it for a day while you work on something else, and then come back to it. There was an incident when I lost two weeks’ worth of data recordings of fly courtships and was so upset that I couldn’t think clearly and she told me to go home and come back to it, and that was really important for me. Sometimes working while angry or overwhelmed is only going to make the likelihood of making further mistakes worse.

    On the other hand, I was really lucky during that project and it more or less worked without a hitch, which did cause me some issues later on during my PhD when I didn’t have faith in the project that became my dissertation when it took longer to work out the kinks in it. And on the gripping hand, a big part of that loss of confidence happened during my proposal defense, and I’m not entirely sure that rituals designed to erode confidence would have helped or been functional about weeding me out. Science is going to erode your confidence no matter what; that’s just the nature of the game. A good mentor’s job is to teach students how to shore up their confidence if it tends to be weak, or to build in safeguards if over-confidence is more of a problem for them. There’s no one size fits all to those things, and they’re highly, highly gendered even across personalities.

    I think the coursework example proposed is a very different beast from the exercise mentioned in the passage because coursework, even very difficult coursework, has an inherent structure and
    logic to it. It’s easy to know what to do in a class to succeed, even if actually doing those things is difficult to do. Science is a different beast; the problem is often not doing the necessary thing to make a project work, it’s finding out what to do–and then making the fix is often hilariously trivial. (I once spent months fighting a problem that could, it turned out, be solved by deleting a particular comma.) I can personally say that experience with succeeding against very challenging coursework, in and of itself, does not necessarily impart confidence in developing a research project–and vice versa. They’re both important skills but they’re testing very different things.

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  6. Count me as another who didn’t like that part of Lab Girl (and I liked the rest of the book so much that I’m counting it as one of my favourite non-fiction books of all time).

    I blogged my review here: http://brummellblog.blogspot.ca/2016/08/lab-girl.html

    The short version, as it relates to the “tough love” part of Lab Girl, is the intent. The professor in that situation – regardless of whether she plays the “good cop” or the “bad cop”, has the INTENT to see the student react to failure. The follow-up questions from Dr. Jahren imply that this is a desirable goal and a contrived situation like the one in the book is the most money- and time-efficient way to get the student to react to failure while the prof is watching. It’s a dishonest approach: It’s built on a lie, that what the student sets out to do is useful and valuable when the professor knows a priori that the time spent by the student is wasted.

    Lack of resources should not be an excuse to treat one’s students so poorly. Please find another way to develop (rather than simply examine, once) a student’s problem-solving abilities and that nebulous concept of “grit”.

    As an aside, I am intensely jealous that Dr. Jahren reads your blog!

    • Thanks for your comment, Martin! You put it well–I agree with you completely. In my experience, trust is a huge part of the mentor-mentee relationship, and the opportunity to build trust is completely lost with such an approach.

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