recommendation letters/alternate careers

aloisia schmid a-schmi at
Sun Nov 24 23:12:54 EST 1996

Dear Sarah,

      I find you to be remarkable and I have no doubt you willdo extremely
well wherever it is you go and in doing whatever it is you wind up doing! 
I am impressed that you had the courage to write all of this and even more
so, that you have had the skills to face the Jenn situation with such
insight and tolerance.  

There were a few things I feel I should respond to;  for those of you
reading this on the newsgroup---I am splicing responses to Sarah's

  It is almost a bad morale
> problem, it seems, among people I know to dwell on how incapable or
> incompetent they are instead of the positive accomplishments.  

This happens SO OFTEN I cannot tell you!  Here at the U of I, in the lab I
am in in particular, the people (graduate students!) here were so hostile
when i arrived they were CONSTANTLY ripping each other AND ME to shreads
at every possible opportunity.  There was nothing good ever said about
anyone, and the people who were in the lab were back-stabbing and
unbelievably petty.  At journal clubs people would go around the table and
take turns ripping the paper being discussed to shreads.  God forbid you
ever actually LIKED  a paper!  Ever actually thought something was
beautiful or elegant!  It has taken two years for that to change, and it
has been the most painful process I personally have ever experienced.  it
has changed though because my boss recognized a problem in having cynical
people in his lab form narrow cliques that were not only
counter-productive, they were insidiously  cruel and evil.  (I realize he
was in some measure responsible for allowing this kind of behaviour to go
on in the first place.  Neverthelss, he recognized the problem and
replaced the evil people as they left, with nice people who DIDN'T behave
this way!)  Petty negative people like this go to meetings and I can tell
you--they are catty and snide and embarrass strangers at their posters and
talks, and establish reputations in the field for anyone associated with
the lab--eventually the ENTIRE lab is thought of as being impossible to
collaborate with and untrustworthy.
> How can one really define "commitment?"  Is that something that falls into
> this black and white recommendation letter category that should doom
> someone?  To me, that kind of statement is not something that should be
> judged because I really don't think it can be. As someone who has outside
> interests that include education, I worry about being branded or
> blacklisted in a similar way.  In general, I think this whole thread about
> alternate careers - while interesting and important for today's career
> woes - has to be looked at against the backdrop of graduate training and
> career recommendation letters.  In my department, many PIs will criticize
> anyone who expresses an interest in a non-academic career like teaching or
> industry. ...... To the woman from
> Cornell who described her PhD/teacher-friendly program:  I applaud that! 
> Man, though, you wouldn't get that where I work!!!

It seems to me these are two completely different issues.  There is a
commitment to science and one's work and there is a commitment to
research.  Sadly, I think people who love science but do not love research
are thought of as not being committed and are dismissed for that reason. 
I have never seen any realistic suggestions on how to combat that attitude
though--and I have never been able to suggest anything either......  

> Most students I know who want these kinds of careers literally do hide
> their feelings from their bosses because they know they run the risk of
> getting screwed on a recommendation letter of any sort.  It's like - some
> bosses will literally try to screw you just because you don't do what they
> want you do to... because your NOT pursuing an academic career is somehow
> an EMBARRASSMENT to them. 

>  Jenn, as
> illustrated by her posts, is also something of her own rogue person.  She
> was the one who trained me and critiqued all my writings early on and I
> consider her brilliant, creative, exceptionally organized, and gifted with
> scientific writing.  Her successful career in biotech. (five years, with
> promotions throughout) and now lawschool stand testimony to that.  She did
> keep her own hours a lot, though - working from 10 until midnight - and I
> think the boss somehow perceived this poorly

Sorry, Sarah, your boss sounds like something of a rod-up-her-butt
asshole.  I mean really.  10 till midnight and that's a problem?  I used
to work REALLY wierd hours (noon till dawn!) when I was in graduate
school.  Who really cares as long as the work gets done?  One of the perks
about this work is that you are supposed to be able to set your own

> Jenn's leaving the dept. WAS a devastating blow - Jenn was the top recruit
> in her class and most faculty were shocked to see her leave because she
> had shone brilliantly during her early studies. No one talks about what
> happened in that case much anymore;  certainly the boss and I have never
> aired our feelings on the matter fully.  She, the boss, has realized that
> I know and support Jenn but wouldn't say much on the matter for years
> after Jenn left.  I always felt I walked the line in the lab knowing both
> women and relying on them for something/support.  Recently, I had to audacity
  to go in and chat with the boss when Jenn was starting lawschool and I told   
  her this - she was visibly thrilled and had nothing but genuine happiness, 
  saying she hoped I would pass this on to Jenn.  I think the years since this 
  have perhaps changed her mind in some ways. ...

Just out of curiosity, Sarah, does your boss read this newsgroup?  I would
be interested in what her opinion of all this is.  If I were Jenn, i would
still be FURIOUS at this woman and would not be willing to let bygones be
bygones at this late date merely because she is pleased Jenn has managed
to find success in another career path.  Too little far too late.  I don't
care how inexperienced, raw or even roguish this woman (the PI) was----I
vow that if I ever get to have students, especially WOMEN students, that I
will be supportive.  I will not sacrifice them to my own career goals.  I
have seen it happen over and over again and wonder why people are willing
to do it---has it never been done to them?  

> All I know if that when I defend, Jenn gets my dedication.  She earned it.
> She and all the other rogue women scientists out there;  roguishness, it
> would seem, is often an Achilles' Heel to women scientists!  

Bottom line is that as women in science---presumably planning to change a
cut-throat and silly system---we cannot just ignore foundering students,
or technicians who want help in figuring out how to plan a future, or
colleagues who need political networking favors or even higher-ups who
want someone to get involved in something that might be unpopular.  We
especially cannot ignore them when our only reason for doing so is that we
don't know how to help or we don't want to risk ourselves.  We have to be
willing to risk ourselves.  Our own futures.  Our own well-beings. 
Because otherwise you get cowardly people like Jenn's and Sarah's advisers
sort of oozing their ways through the system and people like
Jenn--brilliant, incredibly organized, scientifically literate and 
gifted----becoming lawyers.  I wish Jenn all the best of course--and have
no doubt she will do the bar proud, but it still strikes me as a tragic
loss that she was sacrificed as she was.  And I suspect Jenn's and Sarah's
adviser deep down knows this too.  

This whole story---pettiness and less than noble behaviour and ambition at
the cost of less powerful people, people entrusted to the guidance of
people with power and no backbone......this whole story is something that
is appallingly common in science.  Maybe the questions we ought to be
discussing are how to deal with people who have your entire futures in
their hands---with those letters or more informal recommendations on the
phone----and who are immoral and unethical, horrible people.  My graduate
adviser was one such case.  The man for whom  I work now---and who changed
the personality of the lab I work in is a 
GREAT GUY and one of the nicest and one of the most truly good hearts I
have ever met.  But he's very rare!---how do you combat the bad apples?

Anyway, I'll get down off of my soapbox now.  This whole story was so well
and carefully crafted, from both Jenn's and Sarah's points of view--- I
just had to stick my two cents worth in.  

                                       Alice Schmid

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