Sunday, November 05, 2006

Detailed Response to Reviewer Comments

Dear Reviewers,

These comments are great. I'm glad to hear dissenting opinions re: the average postdoc experiences, and what other lab members witness or perceive as the way postdocs are treated.

1. All I can do here is write about my experience and the experience of the many (hundreds?) of postdocs I've met or heard from. Some of you will stick your heads in the sand and blame my mentors, but mine are not the only ones who have treated postdocs in ways many of you consider unacceptable, nor will they be the last.

2. I strongly disagree that postdocs should be given defined little chunks of someone else's R01 to work on. And someone said their PI doesn't give them time to sit around and read and think??? That's unconscionable. What are we doing here, if we don't have permission to THINK?

I think that grad students and postdocs should be given a general direction to head in, and as far as I'm concerned, they shouldn't even have to continue that way if they find something off the beaten path that looks interesting and useful.

We could talk at length about why this is a problem with the funding system, but we'll leave that for a future post.

You blindfold them, spin them around, and send them into the forest with a pen-knife. The ones that make it out the other side get a degree or a job. This may not be the best way, but it's how I think most of the best scientists got where they are now, and it describes my experience thus far pretty accurately.

I think it's terrible to claim we want independent scientists and then hand them pre-baked projects. We already have too many scientists who have no original ideas, that's part of why everyone is so competitive and always stealing from each other. A friend told me recently she went to a meeting where no less than four talks from four different labs were addressing the same question. If the majority of scientists were truly creative, original thinkers, everyone would be working on their own thing, their own way, and there would be no reason for anyone to ever worry about being scooped.

That's my fantasy, anyway.

3. In response to the person who suggested it, I do think 1-2 years to identify good questions is reasonable for switching fields, but not longer than that.

And I think mentors usually DO try to keep postdocs and grad students on the Usual Path- which I don't think is always a good thing. Otherwise how do we ever branch out into new areas, ask new questions? It seems to me that most science these days is "me too" science. To mix metaphors, of course it's easier to do a variation on a theme than to go hacking into the jungle. But what are we here for? Are we pioneers or aren't we?

I would rather be a pioneer.

I would also always choose someone young and fresh over someone old and established, but that's assuming they have similar management skills, which is very unusual. I think the main difference between young and old labs is that younger people tend to be extreme, whether they mean to or not: either completely hands-off, or expect everyone to do everything their way. Older labs are somewhere in the middle, where they've figured out which things can be flexible, and have established protocols for things that can't.

It's the really horrible lab that has been established for years and has never established a collection of lab protocols. But those labs still exist, too.

Perhaps the decrease in funding will weed some of those labs out.

4. MANY PIs have postdocs write grants and review papers, whether other PIs and postdocs realize that or not. NIH especially seems completely oblivious to the fact. I find it especially funny that postdocs are not allowed to write R01s officially, since many of us have already written R01s and had them funded- for our PIs!

You might think your lab is different. But consider this:if you don't know for sure, it's quite possible that your PI's current R01 may have been written, in small or large part, by a former postdoc or grad student.

Your next paper may be reviewed by a grad student or postdoc in your competitor's lab. Your last paper probably was.

This is just the reality of things nowadays. Nobody checks up on these things, and unless people "out" their PIs for unethically delegating their work, nobody will know how widespread these practices really are. It's quite common at all the schools where I've worked, and from asking around, I know this is not unique to my experience.

5. "No one in my current lab writes grants after their fellowships run out (if they got them). The PI thinks that it just distracts you from getting research done and [getting] papers out. The PI (an older white guy) has had very good luck getting his people hired, so everyone leaves eventually to something good or good enough. Our postdocs just stick around on the lab R01 until they can find a job. I have a feeling that most of the PIS of the high-end labs have sufficient funding to make sure the people don't write a grant until after they get their own lab. "

Congratulations. You're in one of the few, privileged labs run by older white guys. Your PI is probably very famous.

Most of us are not in your situation, and we can't all be- there simply isn't enough space & money to go around, and not all PIs are as good as yours sounds.

Even labs that used to run that way can't sustain that kind of situation anymore, because their R01s aren't getting renewed every cycle, even when they get high scores in review. And most labs that used to run that way have no plan for what to do now that they can't sustain their usual privileged lifestyle.

That said, I think that's terrible training. The postdocs coming out of your lab are exactly the sort who are going to struggle with writing their first grants and having to figure out how to subsist on a budget, because they haven't had any experience relevant to knowing how to do it. What kind of training is that?

6. To the very observant technician, yes I've seen PIs who regularly blow a fuse at poorly trained students and postdocs who present poorly controlled data at every lab meeting. Shouldn't they? Of course there are good and bad ways to do it.

This is probably why these postdocs are hesitant to offer suggestions to the boss regarding their projects, because he sounds like the type who wants everything done his way and expects everyone to read his mind, and is probably verbally abusive to boot.

You have to ask yourself, if he's such a 'big man' in his field, then why is he hiring so many poorly trained postdocs? Can't he figure out how to hire good people? Or does no one good want to apply there, because they've all heard he's a royal jerk?

Perhaps this isn't such a good lab.

7. Re: the person who complains bitterly about the older white guys thing.

It's a generalization. Obviously there are fabulously nice, liberated, genuinely mentoring, older white guys out there. I've met some.

But the fact is even the good ones got where they are now without facing many of the problems that their female peers faced, not to mention what racial minorities or people with physical handicaps or cultural/language barriers have to put up with on a daily basis.

Add to that the fact that, historically, the only people who could afford to do science were those who came from rich families. Here you have a rather spoiled, homogeneous population who either choose to ignore, or are ignorant of the fact, that the playing field is not level. These guys may not be the majority, but they're certainly the most powerful minority, and they're still around.

So to sum up, not all older white guys are the extreme stereotype I mean when I use that term. But there are lots of advantages to physically resembling the group of people who are currently in power.

When they walk a mile in my bra, they -and you- might have a better idea what I'm talking about here. I will never be able to walk even one step in their very privileged shoes.

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At 9:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I think mentors usually DO try to keep postdocs and grad students on the Usual Path- which I don't think is always a good thing. Otherwise how do we ever branch out into new areas, ask new questions?

Well... In my opinion the problem is that when you're young you shouldn't be trusted with too much rope or you're liable to hang yourself. I know of at least half a dozen cases of grad students getting kicked out of a program after 6 or 7 years because they were given too much freedom and couldn't figure out what to do with it. Sure, they passed their qualifiers. Sure, they were asking interesting questions. Sure they had some good data. But their data were scattered across several potential manuscripts. They usually submit a paper to a top tier journal and it sits in review for over a year. And then it gets solidly rejected. And their PIs are the laissez faire kind and it takes their committees years and years to feel justified in kicking them out.

4. MANY PIs have postdocs write grants and review papers, whether other PIs and postdocs realize that or not.

Many PIs sell writing their R01 as 'training' to write your own R01. It's a valuable exercise to do once using your own data as preliminary data. The first time I did this I felt it was much more worthwhile than the 'mock' R01 I wrote for a class in grad school. That was just silly.

I wrote substantial portions of 6 R01s or equivalents with four different PIs (my advisor, a friend and two close collaborators) during my last two years as a postdoc. During that time I had the equivalent of a full time technician, but it was distributed across those four labs. I negotiated for that to make sure that my productivity wouldn't suffer too badly while I was writing applications for other people. I'm a better writer than bench scientist, so I think it was the right move for me. And I had good success with funding - I'm 2 for 4 so far (surprising to me is that my successes came in the area of my postdoc training, not what I did in grad school where I really felt like an expert by the time I was done). I guess being completely on top of the literature in a field and contributing to it helps a lot.

Now I need my name next to PI: and I'll be set.

Personally, I think that grad students and postdocs should have to 'compete' for funding within the framework of their PI's grants. And PIs shouldn't be allowed to take more students than they can support within their hard money budgets. I think the system would be better if trainees had to propose a set of experiments that falls within a given framework and then the trainee's committee should decide how much independence they should have to pursue their ideas - setting intermediate milestones, making other resources available to the trainee. A committee could even be empowered to recommend to the institution that a trainee be allowed to apply for their own money.

If someone wants to be a PI, then after they have a couple first author papers they should be framing their work in terms of developing a skill set/reagent base/bigger question that enables them to write an R01.

But let's face it. At this point it's all luck and politics. It doesn't matter how hard you work (we all work hard). It doesn't matter how smart you are (we're all smart enough). It doesn't matter how technically gifted you are (with an N of 10 I get P<0.05 even though it only takes you N=3). What matters is where you publish (which is politics), how well regarded your last PI is (which is politics), whether you're coming up during a time of excess or in a lean time (which is luck), and whether you manage to catch an elevator at a conference with the chair of a department you're applying and you have the presence of mind to bring attention to yourself in a good way (which is both).

At 9:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why must you constantly make excuses about your perceived lack of success? You have so much going for you. You get to work on something you love. How many people are slaving away at minimum wage jobs and hating their lives? Yet you focus almost entirely on blaming the "old, white, male" establishment that you can't make it to the next level. I know plenty of successful, female PIs in the biomedical sciences. And no, they aren't there because they're better than the men. To suggest that, as you often do, is insulting to all of the male PIs who worked their asses off to make it.

Unfortunately, life isn't fair. Deal with it constructively, and you'll be a better person for it.

At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. PhD,
If I have to make an assessment about you (I don't have didn't ask for one. But..) based on your posts in this blog this is it:...Smart, fiercely independant, strong willed, intellectually gifted (natural or acquired), hard working, goal oriented person. That's on the positive side. Some not so positive observations have been made here earlier (I didn't like some of them...), but let me repeat them. I am a relatively new reader on this blog. I went and read a few of the past writings, and I find a strong undercurrent of negativity in them. Sure, you might have this blog to do just that...vent your thoughts that you might not be able to do otherwise, in person, to people you know, say your labmates etc. But I still have a feeling that you could adopt a more positive outlook on issues. Remember the half epmty-half full glass thing...maybe the glass is 90% empty w.r.t to science as you see it, but celebrate the positive, and try to change/impact the negative issues. I also observe that the issues you keep talking about revolve around the same few issues...Postdocs not treated well, Lack of adequate opportunities, PIs relegating more work to Postdocs, R01/Grant disparities, general disinterest in doing 'pioneering' work, older white guys (I am the same person who posted the related comment) helping younger white guys, long hours, obstacles for women...
One suggestion (I don't know if you will have the time..) to do something constructive is to note these things down (like you do here in this blog), and organize them either here in this blog or elsewhere, so that you are able to provide constructive comments and aproductive discussion on a topic by topic basis...what problems did you face, and how would you have done it differently...or how differently should it have been done so that you would have been happy. I observe that a lot of people who visit this blog are real people who (now or in the future) can make a REAL impact on society in general, and science in particular. And may be once you have enough contents on all these topics you could publish a that speaks for 50,000 postdocs and even more grad students... You may not have the time...but a social science major or some one else could help you out. Please consider the suggestion in a positive light.
I assume you spend a decent amount of time writing. And if in the name of ranting or venting your 'thoughts', you are constantly negative, it may very well be possible that such negativity could spill over to other walks of life. People in general are averse to negativity (how do you feel reading this comment?), and can have subtle but serious consequences for anyone. Negetivity tends to come out in some form or the other....

Take a more positive approach...and all will be well. If not, you can always do things to change them. Remember, you are relatively well off...compared to Christians under the Romans, or Jews under Nazis, or women under Taliban....

take it easy.

At 6:35 AM, Anonymous Helen said...

Then again, maybe you're performing an important service by letting those of us who face similar situations see we're not alone.

At 7:21 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Ms.PhD, I agree with you on so many things. I only found your blog today, but I will be back. Interesting discussion.

I wrote a post on my own blog to add to this discussion.

At 5:19 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

Hi Ms. PhD,

Didn't see an email address for you, so I guess I'll respond to your comment here. I don't get nearly the number of criticisms from commenters that you do. I'd attribute this to a couple of things.
a) We seem to move in slightly different blog-circles and probably have litle overlap in readership.
b) I don't get nearly the number of comments that you do, period.
c) Most of my experiences as a post-doc and grad student have been relatively happy ones (although if you looked at my recent postings, you've seen less of that). So in general I think I have a more positive take on things than you do. Maybe time will change that one way or the other.
d) I don't try to frame a whole lot of my experiences in the women vs. old white guys sort of framework. Most of the time I just try to let my experiences speak for themselves.
Otherwise I can't really offer you anything in terms of why we get such different responses, but I can offer you sympathy. It would be hard to hear such negative responses all the time. If you want to continue this off-blog my email is science dot woman at hotmial.

At 7:18 PM, Anonymous Virologista said...

Cripes, the commenter wondering about why you are so negative needs to spend some time in academinc labs--I've only been in grad school for 2 years, and *I'm* getting bitter about some of these issues.

Regarding theory, giving students and posdocs their heads is a fine idea. But graduate programs then need to be much more selective in accepting students, as I would say the majority are not prepared to formulate their own questions. In my lab, it is to the extreme, in that the PI has been mired in a midlife crisis and seems not to *care* what his students are up to much less provide guidance (except to berate us for not publishing as much as he did as a student). And more than half of our students leave without PhDs

At 4:45 AM, Blogger MissPrism said...

Isn't it a shame that the men who give you such sincere and well-meaning life advice always remain anonymous?

At 7:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there. I'm the author of the report you just read, Doctors Without Orders. I'm glad you read it; it's interesting to see your reaction.

As a recovering academic, I can certainly appreciate your frustrations with postdoctoral life and some of the dysfunctions of science in general. I suspect that many of the things you are unhappy about in the paper arise from some misunderstandings of the points I was trying to make. Perhaps I wasn't sufficiently clear.

I agree with you that the system needs some fundamental changes, but bringing about The Revolution was a little outside the scope of our project. Rather, we were trying to get a sense of (1) the biggest challenges that postdocs face and (2) the measures that make the biggest difference. We also tried to quantify the benefits of good practices to help persuade people to actually implement them. I think you might find a follow-up paper more enlightening (the benefits of training and structured oversight persist after controlling for gender and ethnicity, by the way).

Here's the executive summary:
and here's the paper:

RE a few of your specific concerns:

* "Structured oversight" in our parlance does not mean micromanagement or hand-holding. Rather, we mean clear rules and expectations for all parties, PI and postdoc, together with enforcement mechanisms. The kinds of measures that you'd find in any well-run business to prevent abuses.

* RE the issues about women and children, the point is not that women are poorly adapted to the system; rather, it's that the system is poorly adapted to women. The reason for exploring these issues is to figure out how to fix them.

There is actually a fair amount of literature out there on the subject of women in science, and it all shows pretty similar things to what we found. For example, an analysis of the NSF's Survey of Doctorate Recipients data by Richard Freeman found that female scientists work fewer hours when they have children, but male scientists work _more_ hours when they have children (we found a similar but smaller disparity -- they were analyzing older data, so maybe things are improving a bit). Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden at Berkeley found that women who have children within 5 years of earning their PhDs are substantially less likely to end up in tenure-track positions than those who either have no children or have children later (google for a paper entitled "Do Babies Matter"). Yu Xie and Kimberlee Shauman have a whole chapter of their book on women in science that reviews the literature on differing paper productivity rates between men and women. They conclude that most of the reason is that women end up working in places where they have fewer resources. However, they don't have data to explain how people end up with these different placements; I would imagine that children are part of the story.

The good news is that things are improving. For example, in response to Mason and Goulden's work, Berkeley has put together some measures to help faculty with children. There's a lot more to do, though, and much of it will likely need to happen at the postdoc level.

In the next week or two I will be starting a blog of my own at on fixing science, so there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss this and related issues. I look forward to hearing from you.


Geoff Davis

At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ms. PhD,

Apparently they're trying to get an online petition out to the NIH to support "Family Fellowships". The idea is for the NIH to retain talented women (and men) by giving them maternity/paternity leave in the form of a fellowship. I'd be interested to hear your take on this:

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous JF, scientist said...

Half leave? Goodness. That's terrible.

On guidance: I've always though part of the advisor's job is to use their experience to help you figure out when your project is toast; when to cut your losses. Needless to say, mine doesn't.

On grants: Everyone in my lab helps write grants, most especially the postdocs. Mr. Scientist wrote a large section of his lab's latest renewal.

"Personally, I think that grad students and postdocs should have to 'compete' for funding within the framework of their PI's grants." I wonder if you have ever been in a lab like this? There are a couple here- populated entirely by foreign nationals whose visas are controlled by their PI's sponsorship- and they are miserable environments. And milestones are exactly what a committee is supposed to do, but they do not and should not (at decent programs) dictate exactly what experiments you should do. Students need to become independent researchers, as Ms. PhD emphasizes, not have their hands held for six years.

At 7:56 PM, Anonymous Zuska said...

There is never a dearth of men ready to tell women in science that we need to just stop complaining, take a more positive attitude, and not focus on gender inequality which afterall is not the real issue at hand, the real issue is we just need to focus and work harder and be positive and work the system or whateverthehell the particular line is at the moment but for god's sakes please don't be negative, please don't complain about anything and please please please don't commit the cardinal sin of suggesting that gender inequity has anything to do with anything. Because if you do you are just a whining negative nellie. And that's where all your problems come from . Because you are negative. If only you would be positive. Life would bring you roses. Probably roses without any thorns.

Makes. Me. Want. To. Puke. On. Their. Shoes.

Ms. PhD, you write well and honestly and fearlessly. Don't let the morons tell you what you should or should not say. Let them deal with the truth of your world and if they can't take it they can go read someone else's blog.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In medical school you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. This path is well codified and the number of trainees at any level is controlled by the number of positions that are expected to be needed (plus a few more for attrition). Competition is tough at every step along the way, but it is clear (in general) what you need to achieve to matriculate to the next level of training (student -> resident -> fellow -> K-series award -> junior faculty -> R01 -> tenure).

For post-baccalaureate bioscience education the same path exists, but the supply side is not controlled. Graduate programs take way too many people and way too many people continue into post-docs. There are no national scale 'career transition' awards for PhDs (or at least until the K99/R00 was instituted there weren't). Maybe that will solve everyone's problem, but I doubt it. There is no highly respected 'professional technician' path, though many people would be better off there. There is no general mentorship for how to get a job outside of academia (career development centers are not a comparable substitute for the advice of a PI or your committee).


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