Crushing Criticism

The one thing that would make my PhD bearable…

The Oscillator

The Oscillator

is if my supervisor would actually give a shit.

I spent three months, THREE, trying to get a piece of cloning to work. Twice before I’d thought I’d succeeded at the intermediate steps only to find at the final sequencing step that it hadn’t worked. However, third time lucky! (DMSO is an amazing thing for PCRs that refuse to work, by the way.)Β  I amplified the thing I was trying to clone and sent it for sequencing, and it actually bloody worked. You have no idea how happy this made me. I was jumping for joy, and so relieved, especially since I’d spent the morning deliberately NOT looking at the sequencing result in case it hadn’t worked. Nothing like avoidance of possible failure for getting stuff done, yes?

Obviously, I went in to my supervisor’s office to share the great news as soon as I was sure.

And what did I get? A distracted, ‘huh’. Followed by “but I’m worried about XYZ with this aspect of the project.” Way to go, supervisor mine, crushing my excitement and joy with a well-placed, unrelated criticism. Don’t bother to share in my relief that I can finally move on to the next stage of this part of the work, or to congratulate me on a problem well fixed. *headdesk*

Intellectually,Β  I know that I have to keep on pumping out results that fit the story he wants to believe is true in order to keep him interested. I know he has an ‘oscillator’* of whose work he’s interested in and that you can only be on the up for so long before you drop off his radar. I know I shouldn’t be so emotionally invested in his opinions of my work but I am and I don’t know how to change it. Being driven by a desire to please your superiors works great in secondary school but not so well in real life, alas. Any suggestions on how to wean myself off approval seeking would be much appreciated.

*the lab’s little in-joke. We mainly work on a signalling pathway called NF-ΞΊB which encodes information through an oscillating pattern of nuclear occupancy, and W’s interest in our work goes up and down in wave form like p65’s occupancy of the nucleus does. The heartbreaking irony.


12 thoughts on “Crushing Criticism

  1. Aww man, this sucks.

    You’ve read my story and know I had the opposite problem (an obsessive, over-involved supervisor), but it shared the element of desperately trying to please someone who could not be pleased. At one point, my therapist actually asked me–“Do you think [professor] is capable of being happy/satisfied with her life?” My immediate answer was “No,” followed by a list of reasons that my PI’s life sucked and wrapped up be an evaluation of her obvious crushing anxiety and perfectionism. “Well then, is it going to be very satisfying to pin your happiness and sanity to hers?” Point taken, sir.

    I do honestly think that if I hadn’t allowed myself to be so affected by her lack of approval, I may not have descended into the anxiety and illness spiral that was my downfall… but I don’t for the life of me understand how I was supposed to force myself not to care. Rargh.

    I don’t have solutions, sadly, but I do have all the empathy in the world.

    And speaking of cloning projects from hell, I had one fail after two months of effort and my PI basically just told me I sucked at cloning and to give up and let someone else do it (it was important to my project and that of my postdoc, so this sort of made sense). Postdoc couldn’t get it to work either, until she re-sequenced all of the starting-material plasmids and realized that one we had gotten from another lab (that incidentally is sort of a competitor…) had a point mutation that created a stop codon in a promoter sequence. When we asked the other lab about it, they were like “oh yea, we knew that was there, but it didn’t interfere with what we needed the plasmid for. Totally forgot about it, sorry!” Obviously we can’t prove that their “forgetting” was malicious, but it did set us back a few months. RARGH.

    Anyhow, hugs and best of luck. And damn it, celebrate your small victories with or without your stupid PI’s interest or support. Letting yourself enjoy the little wins is the only way to keep going in a job so fraught with unavoidable failure.

    • Thanks for the hugs Keely. πŸ™‚

      And, wow, your therapist did indeed have a point! It is frickin ridiculous to pin your own contentedness on someone else’s, especially when you’ve watched up close and personal how messed up things are for them. If I could work out a magic trick to stop caring about what my ‘superiors’ think, I’d be in the money. It was a problem all through school and undergrad. I know it’s causes issues but still.

      My cloning was umm, special. I managed to clone with my two primers a sequence the same length as the one I wanted, that just happened to be from the host bacterium’s chromosome rather than the plasmid it was carrying (there shouldn’t even have been any of the host’s genome present!). My lovely post-doc mentor who has since left, was well impressed because the chances of that happening are so small! Lucky me!

      Your cloning hell is even worse though. Not telling someone about a point mutation like that is just plain rude! ’cause yeah right, they “forgot”.

      Little wins for the win, indeed. I am so glad the post-docs in the group are nice people who do know how to celebrate successes. *hugs*

      • That is some exceptionally bad cloning luck, but I don’t know anyone who has done a significant amount of cloning that doesn’t have some nightmare story, so maybe hope that this is your story, and it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out?

        …yea, wishful thinking. But best of luck as you go forward πŸ™‚

        • I hope so! A funny related cloning story is the time Susan ran a gel, and was excited to have bands in all her lanes, only to realise that she’d added the ladder to her samples instead of the loading dye!

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  3. Hi Nessie! I just want to add my voice in support, because I have just the same problem of tying my self-esteem to the reactions of people I see as superior. My supervisor is excellent as they go, but I think that he calibrated his feedback gauge for me on one of my good days, so when, later, I was in a months-long slough of poor motivation and little progress, the encouragement that I needed was desperately lacking.

    I suspect you have tried the things I try – reminding myself that it’s not personal, or that his apparent indifference really means that he thought I could handle myself. I also try to motivate myself by giving myself rewards for fixed amounts of work, rather than fixed results. Out of everything, finding My People and trying to spend significant time in supportive environments might be the best thing I did. I don’t know yet whether these things are working – things seem to be looking up, but maybe they will return to usual when I am down next. Maybe work will always be okay when everything else is okay, and not when it’s not? I don’t know.

    Anyway, I really hope that things start to improve for you, and offer *jedi hugs*. I know you will find your way!

    • Hi Asterisk! Thanks for your support. As always, I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this. All of the things you’ve suggested are great, and yes, on good days I do most of them. On bad days, damn it feels good to rant to a sympathetic ear. πŸ˜‰

      Best quote from my supervisor the other week? “I don’t think you respond well to praise”. Ahahahahahahaha. *Cough*, sorry, what? It’s not that I’m not responding to the praise. Rather, it’s usually that I’m so overwhelmed by all the ways I think my work isn’t good enough, or isn’t making enough progress, that, regardless of what get said in the meeting, I don’t believe them. That leads into it’s own little downward spiral of overwhelmed-ness and procrastination, which means my work stalls for a week or more. The solution would be, of course, to have them take me at my word that I’m not doing enough and then help me figure out the concrete steps that are actually achievable, and THEN remind me of the good stuff I *have* done. Overcoming the thought processes of a lifetime of perfectionism and self-criticism is hard work, and while I’m making progress elsewhere (sporting endeavour has been a fantastic opportunity to focus on the positives and sensible steps), in academic work, it’s much more difficult because it’s always been a bigger part of my identity. We’ll see how the journey goes.


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