Playing Pyramid Games + Notes


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I gave this presentation (slides + notes) at the Dutch postdoc retreat on June 25 2009. I was asked to talk about my move from a PhD in cell biology to running your own software company. I decided that telling my specific story wouldn't be very interesting to all, instead I tried to distill the 10 lessons I learned to help people understand science and decide whether they should stay or leave science.

A version without notes is also available.

Big thanks to Matt Wood for his slides design.

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Playing Pyramid Games + Notes

  1. 1. Playing Pyramid Games Alexander Griekspoor
  2. 2. 1 What’s a pyramid game? This is an ad from the 1930’s.
  3. 3. Money 1 Air 10 The guy tries to sell air to 10 of his friends, who give him money.
  4. 4. Money 1 Air 10 More Money Thin Air 100 Who sell it each to 10 more friends in exchange for more money.
  5. 5. Money 1 Air 10 More Money Thin Air Loads of 100 Very Thin Money Air 1000 Image source: wikipedia article on Madoff Recently shown how dangerous it is by a guy called Madoff who almost single handedly brought the whole banking industry to the ground.
  6. 6. PI Postdoc You! Graduate Student The pyramid seems familiar doesn’t it? Science is exactly the same. Instead of money the layer above gets citations in exchange for a lot of promises and wishful thinking. And this is where you are.
  7. 7. Science == Pyramid Game If science is a pyramid game, how do we understand it? What we need is some game theory.
  8. 8. Game Theory Typically in game theory you start out with describing the game, which we just did, and then you analyse different strategies, trying to understand the system and choices the game’s players make.
  9. 9. 10 rules that made me understand Science 3 or 4 years ago I was sitting somewhere in the audience, exactly like a few of you for sure. Now I’m doing something completely different. In between I’ve learned a lot. Here are the 10 rules of the “game” that made me understand science.
  10. 10. ...and step out of it. ...and step out of it. I hope it will help some of you to make the same big choice.
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Complete Agreement; Governing Language. This License constitutes the entire agreement between the parties with respect to the use of the Mekentosj Software licensed hereunder and supersedes all prior or contemporaneous understandings regarding such subject matter. No amendment to or modification of this License will be binding unless in writing and signed by Mekentosj. Any translation of this License is done for local requirements and in the event of a dispute between the English and any First a disclaimer. This presentation is highly opinionated. You might disagree. I kind of hope you do at times. Still, please ask questions at end, I’ll try to keep it not too long to allow for discussion. I’ll be around later as well, I’d be happy to hear your point of you or convince me I’m wrong and should see things differently.
  12. 12. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Rule1 of pyramid games A classic.
  13. 13. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ You don’t talk about pyramid games Fightclub
  14. 14. PI Postdoc You! Graduate Student The pyramid of science. From high school onwards you get in a natural flow. And each step it gets tougher and tougher. In fact the pyramid doesn’t look like that.
  15. 15. PI You! Postdoc Graduate Student More like this. What does this mean?
  16. 16. Find yourself a different job! Almost nobody will make it.The average group leader has 10 people. 1 in 10 chance? You better start thinking about finding a job. But I know what you guys are thinking.
  17. 17. True. I hear you thinking.
  18. 18. True. But not me. But not me
  19. 19. Think again Think again! You might want to stay in Science, You might be good at it. You might like it. But that Cell paper is not coming out. Or worse you get scooped. Why can I stay in Science then? It’s not fair!
  20. 20. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Rule 2 of pyramid games This brings us to the second rule of Science.
  21. 21. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ The game is not Fair It’s not fair. There’s a good reason why pyramid games are illegal. Think bloody well before you participate, and if that’s too late (like in your case I guess), think well at what your chances are at success. It’s not fair.
  22. 22. “I work as hard as the girl at the next bench, she gets a Nature paper, I don’t. Science is not fair.” Last year I was invited to Scifoo and before I went to the Biobarcamp in Palo Alto (explain concept of barcamp). A girl proposed a talk on failed experiments and how these should be publishable. But started complaining the above. Until someone said:
  23. 23. Science doesn’t care about you. Science is not there for you. Science is there for Science sake. The game is not fair. If you don’t drive Science forward somebody else will. Science doesn’t care whether you’re happy, whether you’re sad. The only who cares is...
  24. 24. But you do! you. Keep that in mind. Don’t blame science, it can’t help it. Which brings me to the next point.
  25. 25. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Not everyone is suited for the game It’s not suited for everybody. You have to be able to deal with it mentally. That you can’t control things. For me a big thing (in contrast to a more creative job). But it’s more than that. Not everyone is suited for Science. Soccer and sprinter example. I like doing science analogous to I like playing soccer. Not everybody the next Ronaldo though. Recreational Science is unfortunately prohibitively expensive. Except for the E-learning piano guy and a former VP at Apple PhD UCSC. Many things are important, but most important is talent. Like a prof soccer player, you’re born like that or not. I’m not saying you don’t have talent. You do. Like the chess player beats a soccer player. You have to pick your game. If you recognize you don't have enough talent for Science, find the thing you are talented in. ** IMagine a 100m sprint champion school, you join it, they teach you how to sprint and you win the 100m right? Everybody agrees things don’t work that way. So why then would it be unfair that not everybody can become a PI? Like the sprinter you have to have talent, the luck of being at the right time, right place, the physical and mental state of mind. no injury’s etc. Another example, I often hear people say “but I like doing science” in the fairness debate. My answer is “everybody likes playing soccer, yet there are only a few david beckham’s, ronaldo etc in the world, that’s because they have talents that you don’t”. AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. You have different ones! Everybody has!
  26. 26. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ It’s as important to discover what you don’t love doing, as it is to find out what you do You need Passion Continuing on liking Science, is not enough. You have to have a passion for it. With me? “Well I kind of like science” but I missed the passion. It’s as important to discover that you don’t like something as it is that you do. Motivation (and creativity!) can beat talent. People that love what they're doing read more, think more. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. PLoS example. Once you find your passion your quest is over. I realized my boss was passionate about his thing. So am I now. And they are very different.
  27. 27. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Think beyond the next step Every layer in the pyramid is the same. If your goal is the next layer so that you think you have reached your goal, think again! There’s no oasis. Graduate students need a paper to get a good postdoc position, postdoc need a paper to become a PI. But what about PI? The game is not over, it’s the same or worse. You need to be able to deal with that pressure, there’s no sit back and relax. Passion is again most important as it drives you, you just do it. Plasterk example. But that’s a good thing. Don’t think about the end goal, it’s not there. Think about a running water tap, while you flow in a never ending stream enjoy it! And science is great, it never stays the same, always changing, never boring. Never ending.
  28. 28. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Try new things! Spread the risk Collaborate! Do what you love doing! So you do like it? How do you get to the next layer? Or you’re not sure? You’re already in the game, so what do you do? One key thing is to spread the risk, don’t be afraid to do other things. Collaborate, do the things you like, try new things. Key-lock model! Bring yourself close to things you might like and you’ll find the thing that suits you best. Note that pay off can come late (NKI story), but it will surely come.
  29. 29. “Making a career in science is all about luck.” And then, for everybody comes this moment that you think the only thing that matters is just luck. I’ve been there. And..
  30. 30. True. It’s true. But in the way you should be lucky that you don’t walk under a bus. That your career is solely dependent on luck.
  31. 31. Bullshit Is bullshit.
  32. 32. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Create your own luck You create your own luck. First, by estimating your changes! 80% rule. Also matter of spotting opportunities, taking responsibility, taking the gamble. Pay offs come later. You’ll probably thinking. Easily said, you’ve made it. That’s not true, but even then.
  33. 33. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ work hard But I’ve worked my ass of for it. Lot of energy put in, working day and night, often till 3-4 in the night. If you don’t feel like working hard, you have the answer already, find something else. Work hard and...
  34. 34. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Bend the rules (carefully) Distinguish Be creative yourself! Think outside the box pyramid! Be creative. If you’re feeling creative, you find your passion, you feel good. Distinguish yourself, so that everybody knows you. Scifoo was a nice example, many of those who were there weren’t professors but graduate or even undergraduate students, no paper required! They were there because they had distinguished themselves in some form or way. Write software, write a blog, become the microscope expert etc. An often heard complaint is that we are training too many PhDs and that we should train fewer. BS. What would you do if you were the boss of science? Train 1 person because you have 1 position, or 100 and pick the very best one? The trick to be the one who will be picked is to stand out and you do that by being creative. And that’s true inside and outside the pyramid.
  35. 35. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ The most important rule of pyramid games Which brings me to the most important rule of pyramid games...
  36. 36. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Don’t be afraid to step out Don’t be afraid to step out. If you find something you like outside Science that’s fantastic, go for it. And it’s an illusion if you think this is something you’ll realize overnight, it’s a gradual process. My story: PhD who developed a hobby he started to love more and more. Wanted to do something with it in my next career stage -> hybrid postdoc? Doesn’t work, hard to find such jobs -> change of subject -> postdoc in text mining. But even then only after 1 yr I completely switched to full time software developer. Now 3 guys already. If we have to go out of Science anyway, find the thing you love! if you're not happy quit, (but dont quit too easily) you can ALWAYS change
  37. 37. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Stepping out != Failure On the contrary! There’s still the impression that some people give you (boss, family) that stepping out means all your time was wasted effort. Not true! I always thought that I should have perhaps done informatics, NOT. Now I have a unique talent and combination, none of those boring IT guy have. Also leaving science doesn't mean leaving science. Everyone going for that Science, Nature, Cell paper, but really, what’s the impact bigger. who is reading that? My work influences many many more scientists. I received a lot of emails saying that Papers had a significant impact on their scientific lives. From nuclear physists to social scientists, even priests. That’s what wakes me up everyday, no questions asked. I hope you find that to. Go look for that.
  38. 38. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ One more rule... One more thing
  39. 39. ➊ ➋ ➌ ➍ ➎ ➏ ➐ ➑ ➒ ➓ Pyramid games are everywhere... It’s everywhere, think about accountancy, organizations, political parties you name it. And if the organization doesn’t, you do. You want to always go to the next level. Once did a boring job, never again. So pyramid games FTW. the good news is you just got the rules to deal with them whether you are playing them inside or outside science.
  40. 40. Feel free to contact us!