Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The worst criticism I ever received happened when I was an undergrad. I was under the mentorship of an extremely bright and competent biochemist, who today I could honestly say nothing but wonderful things about. I was being trained by her in basic molecular biology and biochemical techniques that summer, but unfortunately, right in the middle of my fellowship there, my relationship of 4 years dissolved (in a particularly nasty way). I was devastated, and left only barely functional, but thought it would be unprofessional and tacky to bring this up as an excuse for my despondence and inability to focus. I knew it was affecting my work, I just didn’t know how to broach the topic without sounding whiny and weak. Which, of course, made me more depressed.

I started making small errors in lab: forgetting to label eppendorfs, or to write down concentrations, or “over-clocking” the Pippettman so that chemicals got inside it. Stupid little things. But, eventually they reached a boiling point to Dr. Biochem, and she just snapped. She took me outside the lab, and just let me have it. The end was of the “You better re-think a career in science altogether” ilk, and she said she wanted to terminate my fellowship. I listened, and then it was like I just broke in half. All the pent-up feelings I was having about the breakup just came right out, and through my teary-eyes pretty much just begged her to give me a second chance. I can’t remember if I told her why I had been acting so spacey or not, but it must have been quite obvious to her that I was under some serious stress. I still get that humiliating feeling just thinking about bawling in front of a professor. It was mortifying.

However, happy ending. She agreed to give me another chance, and I resolved not to make her sorry. Over the next few weeks and months, I saw her opinion of me change. By the time I had to ask for letters of recommendation for grad school, I only felt the tiniest amount of apprehension about what her’s said (they are confidential). Of course, she was my thesis mentor, so I sent them out along with all my other letters. During an interview, a member of the admissions committee termed her recommendation “glowing.” I almost cried again right there (of course I didn’t), because only then did I realize how much her opinion meant to me.


  1. #1 Cameron
    January 12, 2007

    I had a very similar breakdown as an undergrad researcher. I won’t go into details (not the sharing type), but in my case I actually had to quit researching for a time and address some pretty serious character flaws. After reading about your experience, I think you did very well picking yourself up after you pulled the humpty dumpty.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    January 12, 2007

    Thanks Cameron. At the time, if it had been possible for me to take time off, I certainly would have. Financial reasons precluded that (I was on scholarships). It was a shitty place to be, and didn’t help that I had literally no support system at the time. However, at the risk of sounding trite, it certainly steeled me. Later in grad school when a POS mentor called me a stupid idiot, I took it to the head of the program. Cause I KNEW the problem wasn’t me anymore (I resolved never to be that sloppy again), it was him.

  3. #3 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 12, 2007

    Shelley, I think a lot of us who’ve survived grad school have had similar experiences. There are probably two lessons to learn here: first, the opne you’ve learned — know yourself, and know when to ask for help if you need it.

    But what about the second one — and this is going to be critical of your valued mentor: when someone’s performance or behavior suddenly changes for the worse, ask first. Your mentor waited until she couldn’t be sensible about it and instead blew up and, in her temper, said something pretty well unconscionable.

  4. #4 Cameron
    January 12, 2007

    charlie…the second one is good advice in that you should keep in mind mitigating circumstances and express problems early. I’d recommend against flat out asking if something is wrong in someone’s personal life just because they’re not performing, though. To make light, this is the other way the conversation could go –

    The Brain: Pinkey I’ve noticed you are making mistakes lately, is there something wrong?
    Pinky: Uhhh…. No Brain…
    The Brain: Are you sure Pinky? Everything is fine?
    Pinky: Uhhh…. I think so!
    The Brain: Oh good Pinky! Good. Are you thinking what I’m thinking Pinky?
    Pinky: I think so, Brain, I’m fired?
    The Brain: That’s right, Pinky.

  5. #5 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 13, 2007

    Shelley, you’re absolutely right about it being necessary to ask these things “the right way”. And it’s always possible that someone just isn’t who you thought they were, ie, they really are not up to the task. Its much harder to fire someone in the outside world than to fire a grad student, so we end up being required to make more effort — but still, a dramatic change in behavior shouldn’t make someone think that excoriation and unjustified “advice” is the right way to handle it.

    By the way, quoting Pinky and the Brain has caused me to fall utterly in love with you. If you are looking for an elderly math geek, I’m your man.

  6. #6 Shelley
    January 13, 2007

    Well, looks like you’ve actually fallen for Cameron, although I can quote Pinky and the Brain w/ the best of them. Hey, I cut my teeth on the stuff! 🙂

    Brain: It proved that radio was a powerful tool. And now, Pinky, the advance of technology has brought us an even more powerful tool. Do you know what that is?
    Pinky: Ummm… the blog?
    Brain: The workings of your mind are a mystery to me, Pinky.

  7. #7 Blas
    January 13, 2007

    Charlie, I hope your love is not corresponded :-), I dont want Shelley converted in a pro Bush person like I see you are from
    I could not post there because you require blogger

  8. #8 Shelley
    January 13, 2007

    I dont want Shelley converted in a pro Bush person like I see you are

    Don’t worry about that happening anytime soon. 🙂 But I appreciate Charlie stopping by and commenting nonetheless.

  9. #9 Blas
    January 14, 2007

    Shelley, most probable Charlie is a good person, but I think he is wrong to think:

    >You don’t think that the deaths of our service members weigh heavy on his [Bushs] heart?

    No, I dont think so. I think people of his kind (Rumsfeld, Rice, and other non-american leaders too) think soldiers freely elected that work (as if poor people or immigrants had many choices) and as they are paid to do it he has the right to send them to war (a war that is not to defend their country but to benefit from exploiting others).

    If they cared they would have thought it better before invading Irak and all other places in US history. Or at least (do evil but do it well) sent all the troops that were needed from the start (I think he didnt for not paying a political price).

    Of course he has pressures and will suffer, but people like him are cynical. Of course they are human and they love their family, but I am sure they dont care about people (in part because they live lives separated from regular people). The photo of Bush with tears for a soldier is an insult for the veterans, what a media campaign.

  10. #10 laurelin
    January 14, 2007

    Breaking down in front of authority figures who you trust and respect is the most cathartic thing in the world. It’s weird how it can be inspiring to cry in front of someone and have it kind of transform/solidify your relationship. Embarasssing, yes, but, you know, a meaningful interaction between humans.

  11. #11 Mike
    January 15, 2007

    I’d agree with Charlie, I wouldn’t be surprised if your professor was also mortified when she realised she’d bawled out someone without asking first if there was a problem.

    Although I’d say it sounds like both of you were let down by the institution, which appears not only to not have provided a support network to undergrads but also didn’t provide sufficient training to supervisors.

  12. #12 Mooser
    January 16, 2007

    Don’t fool around with boys, they’ll waste your time and ruin your grades.

  13. #13 RobertC
    January 16, 2007

    One suggestion-if you kick a metal trash can out of “lab rage”:

    1) Make sure your advisor isn’t in the line of fire (who knew they were so easy to fly?)
    2) Wear closed toe shoes

  14. #14 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 17, 2007

    Well, looks like you’ve actually fallen for Cameron,….


    No, I don’t think so.

    Don’t worry. You’ll grow up eventually.

    It might happen somewhat faster if you go back and look at the tears running down Bush’s cheeks in that picture.

    Don’t fool around with boys, they’ll waste your time and ruin your grades.

    Damn. I thought that was fooling around with girls.

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