Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Well-meaning bureaucrats

The theme of the day is stupid hoops that well-meaning bureaucrats dream up to try to make PIs take care of their postdocs, or to try to make NIH take care of their postdocs, and why those hoops fail to do anybody any good.

So I have mentioned that I am a postdoc and that I recently applied for a grant. The astute among you are probably aware that postdocs are generally not allowed to apply for grants as such, and most universities require special permission for postdocs to do so.

The thing that really got me in trouble on this grant process was the pile of paperwork that my advisor was supposed to do, but didn't. She is usually very forthcoming about what she will and won't do, but for some reason this time she didn't, and ultimately ended up saying I should just do it for her and she would sign off on it. This is also the way she handles recommendation letters. We draft everything and then she makes minor changes.

Many PIs are like this. I don't know the percentages of people at each level who are aware of just how common this is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't include any of the bureaucrats who think it is a good idea to force the PI to write a page or two about how committed they or the university might be to having me, the postdoc, get a grant.

I'm sure they mean well. I've even sat on committees that recommended these kinds of things, and it's supposed to be an excuse to stimulate communication, these little things that are supposed to get written. Of course the most useful ones, e.g. the annual evaluations, never get done because there is no postdoc office to enforce it.

But all things attached to money are enforced.

So for this grant I not only had to write a letter for my advisor, but I also had to write 2 pages on why I should be given permission to apply for the grant, as well as 2 pages on the facilities and other resources available for me to do the research. All of these things are ostensibly my advisor's job. And she's not unusual in expecting me to do it.

Anyway I'm just laughing because I'm reading Bridges to Independence again, and it's a lot of the same thing. It's very clear where this mentality comes from. These people mean well, they really do. It's just the implementation that totally fails.

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At 7:53 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

OH dear. Don´t even start me on the trials and tribulations of postdoc-ing! I hope you get your grant and that you stick out the process. I´m afraid I couldn´t and left basic research a week ago. I just couldn´t handle the lack of job security, the lack of rights, etc etc and so forth. Just promise that when you´re a PI you´ll do better by postdocs than those around at the moment!

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous tina said...

Yep - my advisor expects me to write all letters of recommendation and any other items like that. Glad to know i'm not the only one. Good luck with the grant.

At 10:20 PM, Blogger John said...

I'm probably going to get unpopular around here, but writing your own recommendation letters is wrong. Not only because she's supposed to, but more because I'd guess she knows best what to say to make a good impression.

It is harder than you might think to write a good recommendation letter, and a list of compliments is only part of the equation. The comparisons to people that both she and the dept she is writing knows, capturing the nuances of where you did and didn't impress her, her take on your career trajectory all can help.

She only has to write one, it should only take her an hour or two, and she can easily modify the rest in about ten minutes. Give her stamped, addressed envelopes, but I think you should ask her to write the recommendation letter herself, starting from your research statement and CV.

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

well John, don't think you're the first one who has thought that it is just that simple. You can't force anyone- especially someone Above You- to do their job, much less something they don't actually get paid to do but that is ostensibly part of their job.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger John said...

Ms. PhD

I'm sure there is no simple solution, but having a post-doc without putting in the time to help them get their next job at the next level is exploitive. Writing a recommendation is so simple compared to the long hours most post-docs work that the advisor should be ashamed.

I never did a post-doc, but I have had post-docs, and the predicament of having to write one's own job recommendation, particularly when it is hard to find a job, rankles.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Tara C. Smith said...

I'm surprised your PI didn't have something you could just C&P about the facilities and such. I applied for a NRSA as a post-doc (missed it by that much...) and my PI was also pretty unhelpful, but at least that part she had covered since she'd used it for prior grants.

At 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just because your boss is being lazy, doesn't mean that writing your OWN recommendations is the best thing to do Your boss should really understand her responsibilities to YOU and to the scientific community in general.

For God's sake, you are writing YOUR OWN RECOMMENDATION.. how much more ridiculous can that be? It's PI's like this that are turning science into a complete farce...

and it sounds like it is pretty commonplace.

ask yourself - if others were to find out about this, would you be proud? Seriously, an honest-postdoc wouldn't jeopardize her carreer just because he PI is being lazy.

I understand this is the only option you were offered. And it is not really your fault. That said...for you, as someone who often claims "higher moral ground".. this is surprising.

At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that a good mentor will take the time to write letters for their students and postdocs, but to those of you that view her actions as unethical: you miss a critical point. She is not writing her own recommendation. She is writing a draft. I presume we don't know what modifications may have been made before the letter went out. The only thing unethical would be if she provided false information.


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