Girls, don’t cry – an advice to the emotional scientists

My boss had a plague of crying females recently. First it was a BSc student, who started  weeping suddenly in his office because she felt that she wasn’t doing well in her project (the result: a 1st, which is the highest degree denomination in the UK and a successful application to a postgraduate studies degree). Then it was a first year PhD student: same reason, in everybody else’s opinion she was doing really well as confirmed by her first years report committee. Then an MSc student cried during her viva puzzling a female external examiner.

May be this is a specific British problem, contrary to the legend about the stiff upper lip? However, Dr. Lise Eliot, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science wrote in her excellent book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” how she broke down in her supervisor’s office.

I wholeheartedly agree with her advice, which is simple – do not do it. Your supervisor is not here to hold your hand and help you in a research-related distress; your lab is a professional environment.

Of course, nothing extraordinary happens if you do cry. But do consider that you make your supervisor uncomfortable. Your crying ever so slightly decreases chances of a high professional estimate of females in general and you in particular, as I never yet heard about a male scientist crying while sober in his supervisor’s office. Given the same qualifications of a female and male candidate, this reputation of the emotional instability can tip the balance.

Personally, I find that crying in a locked cubicle of an otherwise empty bathroom is much more satisfactory. Additionally, as all the above examples show, there was no real reason for crying, all these people were doing well at their respective career stages.

Perhaps, it is better to ask for a frank appraisal of your progress before crying, not after. In addition, if you feel tears coming you can excuse yourself and leave the office.  Excluding sociopaths, we all feel sometimes like frauds and hopeless cases, even J. Watson of the double helix had had his moments of doubt in his abilities.

Onward and forward, colleagues!


  1. Eliott. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

2. James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968), Atheneum, 1980, ISBN 0-689-70602-2

Farewell to science


By The British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was twelve, I have invented my own hierarchy of professions in  the modern society. At the top there were scientists who moved the rest of humanity per aspera ad astra. On the lower rung were doctors and teachers. The former because they look after health of everybody including the scientists, the latter  because they trained scientists and everyone else. The rest of humanity which consisted of engineers, workers and peasants, merged into a useful, but not individually identifiable masses.

The Soviet society was technocratic so there was a  system to encourage people to be interested in science. On TV there were programes like ” In the world of animals”, and most importantly – “Obvious – unbelievable” about the scientific discoveries. The library  had popular science books, in which  science was  presented as accumulation of fun facts.  When I was in high school  my parents – a teacher and a medical doctor – subscribed for me to the magazine “Science and Life.” Finally, in our home library beside 12 volumes of pupil’s Encyclopedia  we had a “little red book of a budding scientist” – “Monday Begins on Saturday” by Strugatsky brothers, where scientists have been  clever and interesting,  their life useful and fun.

School subject competitions  (Olympiads, something like spelling bees but in Biology, Chemistry etc. starting from the school level up to the level of whole USSR) provided me a window into a different life, where people thought not only about clothes and food, and the currency in the conversation was not admiration of  boy bands  and  makeup tips, but  opinions about  Dostoevsky and the Kalahari Desert. And after adrenaline  injection with the victory at the Olympics awards in the form of honor and respect in school and at home. Interest in science gave a different  the provincial bell-jar claustrophobic self-identity, and the goal – to move to a larger city, as well as a means of achieving it.

The girl who won the first place at the Republican Biology Olympiad (1995) enrolled in a medical school. I (6th place, II degree diploma) brushed off such an option, as  I was firmly convinced that MD is secondary to PhD and the way to science was via

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4 scientists: How to deal with a bad reference

While filling in a job application, you often have an option “contact the referees after the interview”. Don’t be scared to use it, most of the prospective employers only contact the referees after the interview. If you were shortlisted for an interview, you already have good chances to get the job. After the interview the potential employers tend to rely more on a good in person experience, than on a reference from an unknown person with a potential conflict of interests. Just be honest why you don’t want to ask for a reference from your previous supervisor or PI.

Catalysis Research at Argonne

If only all PIs were so hands-on  (Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

Case 1 – PhD student

A  bad  reference is always a problem, but if  you didn’t get along with your PhD supervisor, it is not the end of the world and your nascent career. I know a PhD student (not his real name), who had a huge row with his supervisor at the end of his postgraduate studies. It was something to do with the authors order on a paper, but the details are not important. What is important,  he was able to get a postdoctoral position. After the interview he was asked about the references and told the truth, without getting into the details – that the supervisor is not happy with him, but it is possible to give references from his second supervisor  and his Master Project advisor. The interviewing PI was happy  to accept his explanation and alternative references. The  former student got the job.

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