Scientists don’t take chances on students

A Personal Aside

Note: There are serious humble brag tendencies in this post, I was fortunate enough to have success in my short academic career and need to highlight that in order to make my larger point. My story is the opposite of a sad story, which is why I am sharing it.


This is a bit of a personal story to express why I take issue with the hashtag #tookachanceonme on twitter. The stories via tweet I am seeing are heartwarming and I actually have no issue with anything I am reading. Most of them are about scientists changing fields and grappling with the kindness of scientists that did not slam the door in front of them. I worry that we as young scientists are all selling ourselves short (or what is colloquially known as #impostorsyndrome). In other words, I do not feel that anyone in science truly takes a chance on anyone. I feel they see the candidate’s potential, even if the candidate does not, and decided that they could help the candidate grow as a researcher and as a person.


Ironically, I have had greater challenges in science because of my perceived success, not because anyone saw me as a risk or a gamble. When it came time to apply for graduate school I was universally rejected through two separate sets of interviews. The first one I did receive a few interviews, and only got vague comments about poor fit as a reason why I was rejected. This was very difficult for me to accept at first because I did not (and still don’t) understand how an applicant with 7 manuscripts, a few first authored, and a clear trajectory forward would be rejected. So my advisor and I chalked it up to me not interviewing well and moved on.

The third year, when I was finally admitted to a graduate program I had a greater number of interviews. For one of them I even was invited out a few days early to look at the resources in a couple of labs I was applying to work at. This time after I received my long list of rejections, I was bold enough to email the professors I had interviewed for any clue as to why I was rejected.

At one school, the head of the program was the person I was applying to work with and they did not know why the admissions committee rejected my application. They did not know but got back with me a few days later. The committee had decided that I was going to be a poor fit in the program because I would not work well with this professor. They had forgotten to ask them their opinion on this. They just said I was too much like my undergraduate advisor and thus would not work out. Passed through a simple logic filter, apparently my by then 14 papers were being held against me. Apparently my independence and hard work were now being used as a reason to reject me. Great. Kinda hard to erase the scientific record of accomplishments.

At another school I asked why I was rejected and they had no answer. I ran into the professors I had spoken with in my visit to their labs at the Society for Neuroscience Conference and they apologized. They apologized for the program having rejected me because their students did not want me in their laboratory. They further apologized for not speaking up and veto-ing their students. Their interpretation of the situation was that the students did not want anyone with my publication record competing with them in their program. Again. Great. Apparently there is nothing like success to kill a graduate application!

The interpretation from my old advisor was clear, to the point, and damning. Ph.D. programs only want students with 0-2 publications, none first authored, and no clear trajectory. In other words, they want a blank slate that they can mold. For the sake of this post, I will rephrase that as they want the riskier students. Graduate programs want to train students up from scratch. They do not want to continue another’s training or just stand by and let a student flourish in their own professional trajectory. This is why I reject #tookachanceonme. Mentors and graduate programs do take a chance on every student, albeit a calculated one that they intended to take before ever coming into the situation.


The program I was accepted to actually saw my record as a positive, or at least I thought they did at first. I had set up rotations with a number of researchers during my interviews and everything went well. They still called my advisor and asked him if my independence was going to be a problem. And if I played well with others. Fortunately for me, my advisor told me of this after I had started graduate school. I may not have made the decision to move forward if I had known these trepidations early.

My reason for saying that is that, as anyone who follows this blog by well knows, mentoring students is my passion (Link1, Link 2). I effort strenuously to given them what they need to succeed and their success is my success. Few things in life have been better than telling students their papers have been accepted, particularly the ones that were first author.

Asking if I play well with others and if my independence will be a problem is nothing more than asking if I will be a liability to their program. Well I wasn’t. I clashed with advisors that they held up my papers because I find that behavior unconscionable and controlling. I fought to do things the right way rather than the fast way. I found external mentors to help me meet my potential along the way. I worked across labs with collaborators and pushed the projects I was involved with forward. But I was always perceived as risky and a bit of a pain in the arse to my advisor. Not because I was going to fail out of the program, but rather because I refused to succeed under other scientists’s terms, rather I chose to succeed or fail under my own terms. I succeeded by all measures other than receiving a tenure track position.


So now to the question, Did my advisor and Ph.D. program take a chance on me? I consider this an unfair, even stupid question to ask.

Objectively, when I started graduate school I had 14 papers, 7 of which were first author, had independently received funding from Pfizer, had 7 years of research experience, had a reputation for excellence in my field, and mentored over 20 students for >1 year. When I left I had 45 manuscripts and 7 book chapters-most of which were first authored or student first authored, received a clinical-translational sciences training grant and HHMI moneys, and a list of collaborators singing my accolades. So did my program take a chance on me? No. They didn’t.

It is insulting both to my advisors as well as to myself to infer that my old advisors or my graduate school program #tookachanceonme. Even though I was rejected many times from graduate school I was still a sure bet for anyone that would take it. It was just hard to get these programs to recognize a safe bet.


So what’s my point here?

We are all risks if we choose to define ourselves as such. But we also all have skills and talents that we can provide any mentor, scientific or otherwise. Our mentors want us to be successful, and if they see potential for success within us, then they open doors or take chances or whatever term we want to use. There is no room for #impostorsyndrome or someone #tookachanceonme. There is only enough time for us to live life on our own terms and find our own little corner of success.

That said and done. I am no longer in academics. As I stated before, there are elements to the field of neuroscience that I vehemently disagree with, and I refuse to continue under those terms. I chose my own definition of success. Since I am no longer in academics perhaps my mentors after all did take a chance on me, and lost their bet. But I won, and that is all that matters.

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