Friday, July 19, 2013

Learning from Spitzer and Weiner

When I'm in the hospital being a doctor, I'm treated respectfully by staff, patients, students, nurses, other docs, etc. My job entails interacting with others in a professional manner and working with them towards common goals. There is a hierarchy on the hospital wards and in clinic, and I am generally at or near the top. Being constantly critiqued by colleagues is not part of clinical work.

On the other hand, when I'm wearing my academic researcher hat, I'm constantly being critiqued, evaluated, scored, criticised, etc. In theory, it's my academic and scholarly work that's being scrutinized, but it's hard not to take it personally. I am subject to scrutiny when I submit manuscripts for publication, when I'm considered for academic promotion and when I submit grant applications. Part of being a molecular biologist is being told your grant is not good enough to be funded, your manuscript needs more work or is outright rejected, and receiving other various sorts of criticism--usually anonymous--on a frequent basis. Grants, of course, do get funded, but rejection is a more common outcome. Manuscripts do get published, but again rejection is frequent. When papers are not rejected, there is often harsh criticism of the submitted draft: ok, not necessarily harsh, but to those without thick skin, even gentle criticism can often sound harsh. It helps greatly to have thick skin in this business*.

In my quest for ways to thicken my skin, I've found Anthony Weiner and Eliot Sptizer to be inspirational. If I had done what they had and had been subject to the same public humiliation and condemnation, I am not sure how I would ever have overcome the embarrassment. I can imagine hiding in a closet and wanting to disappear. If I were out in public, I would constantly be thinking about what other people were likely thinking about me. In short, it would be a disaster for my self-esteem. Weiner and Spitzer, however, are back to work in politics, out on the campaign trail and seemingly with their high regard for themselves intact, with nary a hint of shame. This is the pinnacle of thick skin, of unshakable self-esteem. And guess what: both have very strong chances of winning. Spitzer and Weiner should be an inspiration for every bioscientist who has ever moped for more than a couple of hours after a grant or manuscript rejection (which means, I think, a great many of us).

*DrugMonkey put it more succinctly:
I think our career / academics sets an environment in which you are constantly told you aren't doing quite enough, aren't quite excellent/brilliant enough and gee, we could probably get along without you, chumpie.

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