Affirmation in science is a rare beast

August 22, 2013

GMP has an observation up at Academic Jungle that resonates:

2) Nobody ever pats you on the back and tells you “Good job.” Ever. Except perhaps the people whose approval in the professional arena doesn’t mean much, like your partner or your parents. …The fact that you are supposed to forever go on based on your own convictions and some internal source of energy (must be nuclear, eh?), without ever expecting to get a little energy back in the form of praise from colleagues in the professional community is a really tall order. … I never expected that I would have to be the sole engine propelling myself and all my group members for the next 40+ years. I praise my students when they do a good job, but for us grownups there is no such thing. I suppose you get an award every now and then, but what’s that, a pat on the back every few years? That’s a lean affirmation diet.

It’s totally true. Frequently so, anyway. Those who are supposed to be reviewing and helping with your career locally, such as a Chair or even Dean type of person, are universally motivated to tell you that you are not good enough so that you will work harder. Grant review, paper review…there are some warm fuzzy comments made but somehow the criticisms seem to loom larger. Peers who want to talk about your papers like to bring up the stuff you didn’t do or the flaws or explicate the methods. This is science and a healthy part of it, but it can be hard on the ego since there is never any impression of universal acclaim followed by more and more and more unquestioning approval of your work.

There is a subtle feeling we encourage in science about expectations as well. Sure, you just published a paper, got a grant from the NIH or graduated a PhD student…..but here’s the trick. If you really belong, if you are really one of us…that is expected! So why should there be any special notice for your accomplishment?

Each novel accomplishment for your career simply raises you to a new level of expectation. Just scored your first Nature paper from your own laboratory? Hey, that’s great. But now you are a CNS Glamour Lab and, well, of course that is what you do. (Hey, when’s the next one coming out?)

Over the years I have tried to go out of my way to congratulate my peers, especially the more junior ones, when I see they got a new grant award. Tried to take special notice of their papers and congratulate them on trainees flying the coop. Say something about their selection for study section. I’ve tried to remind some of my closer peers more directly when I see them as an important part of the field and our overall endeavor. And I don’t just limit it to the plebes like me or extramural scientists either. SROs and POs in the NIH need to get some positive feedback too. Your senior faculty won’t be hurt to know you think of them as the best person to serve as Chair or even to make a run at a Deanship (should they be so crazy).

I am not natively a person who is effusive in praise. So I’ve had to make a conscious effort. I’ve done so ever since coming into contact with the Imposter Syndrome in blog-discussions, which was a big factor in crystallizing my thoughts on this.

33 Responses to “Affirmation in science is a rare beast”

  1. jipkin Says:

    hmm. but what’s the natural variation in affirmation per career anyway? do lawyers congratulate each other more? doctors? engineers? janitors? teachers? underwater welders?

    can anyone bust the null hypothesis that maybe humans just don’t praise their peers that much?


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    This is my career and I say attend to your own house first. This is not zero sum, nor is there any reason for cross-career comparisons.


  3. Jim Woodgett Says:

    Here you go, drugmonkeyblog, I think you’re doing a great job 🙂 Seriously, there is a positive reinforcement deficit in science. We do criticism really well (not so much constructive), but choke on pats on the back. We expect the former so when we get the latter, it’s doubly effective.

    Now, must go and find a trainee to guilt into working even harder.


  4. Dave Says:

    I dunno. I mean if you need external reinforcement to keep you going, science definitely isn’t the career for you. We are conditioned to find fault…..always.


  5. physioprof Says:

    This blogge suckes asse.


  6. dr24hours Says:

    This is not my experience. I’ve always had bosses and mentors praise my successes. Sure, it’s essentially been: “Good, now go get the next one.” But always phrased as “Great job! This will make the next one easier!”

    And you didn’t mention the online support. You personally once told me, upon my first funded grant: “Congrats! First of many, no doubt. Well done.” Among other affirmations. This is similar to words of support I’ve received from many dozens of scientists online.


  7. jmcin9 Says:

    Quite honestly, my summer has felt successful due to a single complement after a talk I gave at a conference. After sitting back down, the “godfather” of the field walked over (as the next speaker was beginning) and said good job/very nice work. To be honest the fact that I didn’t have 5 minutes of him grilling me was up to that moment considered a win.
    I’ve been trying to do the same with undergrads and grad students in the labs in my department. Especially those students that have struggled, affirmation when things start going right seem to provide an extra boost.


  8. Bill Says:

    One of the first differences that struck me when I sold my soul moved to industry was the level of positive affirmation. When I did a good job, people noticed and said thanks or congratulations. Honestly, it was a bit weird and awkward at first — I had no practice in responding graciously — but I had no trouble adjusting!


  9. The Other Dave Says:

    Definitely I agree that science is full of people with borderline Aspergers and geeks who resent getting beat up in seventh grade. But their lack of social skills hurts their career.

    EVERY very successful scientist I know is great at positive feedback. The real players in this biz are all incredible suck up butter your bread all sides types. They send congratulatory emails when you publish, rave about your funding, and never miss an opportunity to tell you your work is the coolest thing since they popped their first boner. They know that social ties make all the difference when it comes to paper and grant reviews and awards and speaking invites.

    Once, during a seminar visit to some med school, I was meeting with a complete ass. I didn’t know his work very well, thought what little I knew about it was stupid, and it was clear within 30 seconds that he was a complete ass. So what did I do? I looked around at his fancy office furniture and complimented him on it. Then I shut up. He talked for the next 30 minutes about the damn furniture and how he got it and his aesthetic sense. At the end of the meeting he seemed to think I was the most awesome guy in the world.

    Science is only about 23% meritocracy. The rest is the same old bullshit that rules every other human endeavor.


  10. damit Says:


    I must be very lucky.

    I had a never ending stream of people congratulating me on my first RO1…may be related to how widely known it was that I was close to being fired and how damned hard it was to get.

    I have never forgotten to pass that forward where I can.

    We all ought to be doing this, especially now.


  11. Grumble Says:

    TOD has it exactly right. I see so much glad-handing among scientists that I really wonder where DM is coming from with his suggestion that no one praises anyone, ever.

    Like jmcin9, I gave a killer talk at a conference this summer, and got widely complimented for it. It felt great. Of course, there’s this constant feeling that it doesn’t matter how many killer talks you give, or how many colleagues respect your work, or even how many CNS papers you publish. What matters is that you keep your work funded, because none of it is possible without money. I think maybe this constant underlying fear keeps us from really internalizing the positive things other scientists say about us. In other words, positive social feedback isn’t as rewarding for us because it doesn’t matter as much (compared to people in other careers, such as pharma).


  12. Eli Rabett Says:

    My father writes plagiarized papers,
    My mother sells proposals from bins,
    My sister makes cotton candy for outreach,
    And oh how the money rolls in.


    Rolls in, rolls in, oh, how the money rolls in, rolls in.
    Rolls in, rolls in, oh, how the money rolls in.

    My brother’s a slum recruiter,
    Out saving young post docs from sin.
    For a shilling, he’ll save you an H-1,
    And oh, how the money rolls in.


    To be sung when the proposal is funded


  13. Busy Says:

    In my case it is not quite as bad as GMP’s. What I have noticed is that there are some rather lengthy dry spells between the periods of praise, all while the career arc still showing the same steady progress. One of those dry spells was compounded with some career grant rejections that should have a cinch (I circulated copies of said grant applications for feedback–before and after the decision. My colleagues had a hard time believing I had been declined). Fast forward a few years and suddenly comes a named chair and a large increase in grant funds. That was a big pat in the back, but the previous five years were hard going at times.


  14. Industry Scientist Says:

    “In other words, positive social feedback isn’t as rewarding for us because it doesn’t matter as much (compared to people in other careers, such as pharma).”

    Industry really isn’t much different than academia in terms of praise with the exception that you always receive an annual review. Do hard work and accomplish all your goals and you’ll get “praise” in terms of a nice bonus. But then it starts all over again the following year.

    And really, just like academia, everything is what have you done for me lately – filed an IND this year? Terrific. When’s the next one going to be filed? Validated or invalidated five targets? Swell. Next year let’s try for ten. Not having to publish or write grants ad nauseam gives you a lot more time to propose and conduct more experiments, but every year the bar is raised quite a bit higher.


  15. Grumble Says:

    The difference, Industry Scientist, is that you are praised as a direct consequence of the good work you do, and that praise comes from someone who controls your paycheck, work conditions and career advancement. So that praise is effectively correlated with things of real value – as psychologists would say, it acts as effective second-order reinforcement.

    In soft-money academia, the person who controls all those things is the dean (with input from certain others, like your chair). By and large, all they care about is how much overhead you bring in. They might praise occasionally, but their kind words are always overshadowed by the reality that they won’t hesitate to throw you out as soon as a sizable lapse in grant funding occurs.

    Of course, in any industry, if you don’t perform, you get fired, demoted, whatever. But generally, if you’re doing your job well and getting positive feedback from your boss, you can take that to mean your job is stable. In academia (at least in soft money academia), though, there’s a distinct contrast between grant success and how well you do with all other aspects of your job. Progress on the latter does not guarantee the former. THAT is why my dean’s, chair’s, or anyone else’s praise has very little motivational value for me.


  16. physioprof Says:

    I really don’t understand this focus of PIs on “praise”, like you are grad students or post-docs or whatever. The only praise I care about is that of peer reviewers of my papers, grants, and career advancement.

    Yes, when you are a grad student or post-doc, and you are working towards your *first* grants, papers, career advancement opportunities, then interpersonal praise helps keep you motivated and feeling optimistic. But once you are an independent self-sustaining part of the system, who gives a fucke about that shitte?

    I feel “praised” when my grants get funded, my papers get accepted, my trainees secure good positions for the next stages of their careers, and my own career advances past milestones. Irrelevant editorializing by random douches about whether they like me or my science means nothing to me.


  17. physioprof Says:

    Oh, and I should have added: I also feel “praised” when I receive invitations to deliver seminars at other institutions and talks at meetings.


  18. DrugMonkey Says:

    Clearly you are deep into the spectrum, PP.


  19. Industry Scientist Says:

    “Of course, in any industry, if you don’t perform, you get fired, demoted, whatever.”

    Well this is kind of the key, isn’t it? Maybe there’s a bit more of a direct correlation between receiving a good review in industry and your job security, but you can receive a very good review one year and a terrible one the next. And two terrible reviews in a row are generally not tolerated. You aren’t motivated in industry to work hard to get a larger bonus, you’re motivated to work hard to keep your job – all the time, regardless of any praise you receive.

    And sometimes, terrible reviews might not be from a lack of hard work at all. Maybe you didn’t meet your goals because none of the experiments you set out to do worked successfully, whether that be from technical problems, from all your hypotheses being wrong or even because new data generated tanks a program (whether that be from tox or efficacy). Or, perhaps, from trying to replicate data from that hot, new CNS Glamour Lab paper and having nothing work as published.

    Point is, any positive “praise” you get in industry is fleeting and really plays no role in motivation at all.


  20. GMP Says:

    I feel “praised” when my grants get funded, my papers get accepted, my trainees secure good positions for the next stages of their careers, and my own career advances past milestones.

    Papers get accepted after responding to sometimes helpful but usually quite incisive and unpleasant criticism; several grants go unfunded before one gets funded. When all is done, there is no elation, there just relief of having gone over the latest hurdle. (Or maybe I should drink/smoke whatever CPP is having.)
    I am happy when trainees secure good positions, I am proud of them, but it’s their achievement and affirmation, not mine.
    Career advancement past a milestone? How far apart are those — years? How long between making associate prof then full prof then society fellow and then, if ever, a National Academy member?
    Anyway, someone somewhere said that academia is a good place for people whose ego is entirely self-contained.


  21. rs Says:

    Actually, academia seems like Walmart these days, where people means nothing, only how much money you can bring matters.


  22. someone in science Says:

    I am with you GMP. All the successes (the rare ones when a paper gets accepted in CNS journals or a NIH grant funded) are widely spaced. I remember how happy I was when my mentor told me that I got great results and to keep it up. Made my day/week.

    Now, a bit further downstream all I hear from my mentors is that “no you are too junior ” . Speaking of encouragement – that ain’t it. So, I make an effort to actively tell my postdocs and students that what they do is great, excellent etc as I know how it encouraged me to work even harder. Win/win situation for both.


  23. someone in science Says:

    Mind you – there are also exceptions to what I said and they are praises. But those could be more often.


  24. myninacat Says:

    I think it’s the opposite as well–not just too little praise–too much tearing down. So much criticism over minutia–and seemingly missing (purposely?) the big picture of the talk/grant/manuscript….Fixating on the overheads brought in, without looking at any other positive aspect of the person’s being. Yes it’s all money, isn’t it?–but is this as it should be? So many have said their best/most important idea was rejected over and over and not funded or barely funded. We are so full of ourselves that we know “great” when we see it. Wonder if some of the great ones from the past would have those same ideas funded in this climate.


  25. The Other Dave Says:

    Something to consider, DM:

    If you are not receiving praise, it might not be the system. It might be that you just don’t deserve any praise.


  26. DrugMonkey Says:

    Very true TOD!


  27. anonymous postdoc Says:

    This post really hit home for me for a number of reasons:

    A) Due to the low-grade interdisciplinary-ness of my research, I have had increased opportunity to interact with various subdisciplines of behavioral neuroscience. I have personally noted that those individuals working in the fields of dopamine/addiction tend to bemoan the lack of positive feedback in science more often than average. I assume it has to do with the competitiveness of this subfield mixed with a fundamental interest in, and respect for, the power of positive reinforcement. And now here’s DM doing it, true to subfield.

    B) I have personally made a number of science friends by my willingness to tell people when I think their story is interesting and valuable, that their experiment was designed well, or that their work has motivated me to explore X in my own shit. When uttered, these statements are true – that is, I don’t say them to just anyone, or just to garner points, and I do point out flaws and ask bitchy questions.
    Nevertheless I’m not miserly about my praise, and it never ceases to amaze me how grateful people are and how happy they are to see me next time. This was true even when I was a late stage graduate student talking to certain faculty at SFN. It costs me so little and it gains me so much. Perhaps this is Care Bears Tea Party of me, but that’s me, baby.

    C) This post reminded me to send an email to congratulate a colleague who I saw was somewhat recently awarded an important little grant, which caused said colleague to look at the winners list, see that I also won said grant, and reply with some very nice information regarding potential faculty positions. So cheers for the post.


  28. DrugMonkey Says:

    I don’t think GMP does anything even remotely related to dopamine, anonymous p.


  29. anonymous postdoc Says:

    You are describing the variance, while I am noting the central tendency.


  30. Barbara Says:

    I’ve always been a little mystified about one fellow biologist’s success in the scientific / governmental bureaucracy. Yes, he’s good at what he does, but so many of us are. Recently I interacted with him directly for the first time, providing some information at my usual pedantic length. His return e-mail brought effusive thanks and praise for my work. It was over the top but . . . very pleasant! And I smiled at the glimpse I got of the non-biological side of his success.


  31. rylie Says:

    This. Oh, this^infinity.

    On a related tangent, I’ve been trying to find a way to stay in academia and it’s been suggested to me that my best course of action (in addition to kicking all sorts of scientific ass and publishing shiny papers in glamorous journals) would be to find a university that’s amenable to hiring someone with a chronic illness facing possible disability.

    The problem is, having worked my way up to the highest level of career advice at the institution I work at, I still haven’t found a way to identify such places. On paper (well, webpages at least) everyone is family friendly and all inclusive. It’s a veritable rainbow of warm fuzzy inclusiveness. But reality has a tendency to be bit grimmer…and thanks to a career that has considered the last decade of my income taxable but not “real” when it comes to the matter of social security, SSDI, and Medicare, I may not have decades of trial and error to identify such a place. (Yes, this puts me in the weird camp of being one of the few trainees fighting to pay FICA rather than fighting against it, but that’s another story.)

    I also don’t really have a platform to ask for advice from a larger audience. I don’t even know if such places exist. But it would be nice to know if I’m being told to search for a unicorn in a world filled only with donkeys.

    I’m still very actively looking at my options in academia. But right now, my mental image of the process is a picture of Sally Rocky superimposed with the words “BREAK FASTER.”


  32. […] As if getting a paper through peer-review is not enough, we also need our colleagues to shower us with praise about how great our work is.  I understand it — I like that praise, too.  But, these awards […]


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