Friday, August 31, 2007

Meaningless lipservice

Someone wrote:

"There's an article in that very same issue describing how the NSF and NIH have included new instructions to grant applicants regarding their duty to "mentor" postdocs. I'm surprised you didn't pick up on that."

WOW. What an arrogant comment! Of course I picked up on that.

I didn't mention it because it's meaningless lipservice.

Or were you hoping to see me rant about why it's meaningless lipservice? Here's the rant.

There's no way to enforce that anyone actually does any kind of mentoring at the grant level. It would be more appropriate to build it into departmental-level teaching requirements and tenure review.

Grad programs should evaluate mentors and prevent exceptionally bad ones from getting new students.

Departments should have similar mechanisms for preventing exceptionally bad mentors from getting postdocs.

Along with this might be a rule for limiting the size of labs, since nobody can juggle 20+ students and postdocs and actually mentor them all.

Note that I said exceptionally bad, not just bad, since most PIs suck at mentoring, so far as I can tell.

You could argue that it's not really their fault, they don't know any better, and nobody trains them in mentoring skills.

Gosh, maybe mentorship training should be a requirement for PIs and departments to get grants and accreditation?? There's an idea.

Except that it would probably be about as useful and unwanted as sexual harassment training. Where I work, the institution of annual sexual harassment training just goaded the smarmy PIs to really show off that they know how far they can push it without getting sued.

And while these kinds of things do serve the purpose of informing students and postdocs that they theoretically have the right to complain, it drives home the point that nobody can save your career if you do, even if you're legally protected from backlash.

For sexual harassment, that is. There is no legal protection for backlash from complaining about a total lack of mentorship!

No, this business about writing a section on mentoring is just like what they already do with postdoctoral fellowships.

You can write all kinds of nonsense about the career development activities, yada yada, but so long as you write the correct things in the box, nobody cares if they don't actually exist or your PI won't actually let you do them.

For example, you or your PI can write that there are teaching opportunities, and that makes it look like you're in a good "training environment." It doesn't mean you'll get to teach even one lecture as a postdoc.

The only measure that might make a difference is if NIH and NSF include some kind of bonus points for people who have placed many former postdocs in faculty positions, which they do unofficially already for fellowships. But if they did that officially for all grants, it extends even more favors to senior PIs and unfairly penalizes young PIs. So that isn't a good policy, either.

I'm 100% certain this is exactly the same thing. It's a bureaucratic bandaid, nothing more.

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At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny that you think I'm arrogant. Well, if so I might as well give you some more to chew on. I feel that your writing on postdoc issues in general is thoughtful, intelligent, and illuminating, so I prefer when you write about that as opposed to the endless whining about how women are discriminated against in science. I find it interesting that you twist a completely unrelated article about school rankings into a post on how women are discriminated against, while in the same journal there is an article about postdoctoral training that you completely ignore .

At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Drugmonkey said...

ahh, but "good mentoring" and "placing trainees in faculty positions" can be entirely unrelated talents. The complete a-hole, exploitative, ego-destroying PI who runs a huge operation that, oh, BTW gets a postdoc a first author and several middlin' authorships on CNS papers may leave a postdoc well-positioned for getting hired. The best warm/fuzzy PI in the world who only gets you into the run-o-mill journals isn't going to leave you as well off.

yes, you say but why can't the high-falutin PI also be a good mentor.

umm, because those may be mutually exclusive if it requires an egotistical, driven exploiter to do science at that level...

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Peggy said...

I suspect that a big part of the problem is that some of the worst mentors are the most prominent scientists. They often have huge labs and little time for any real mentoring. The post docs that thrive in that environment are those that can work with minimal advice or support. In turn, they become the next generation of PIs who know little about mentoring because the were never mentors or mentees (if that's a word). I'm not sure if there is an easy solution to improve the situation.

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

sorry for hijacking your post but the comment about"endless whining about how women are discriminated against in science" is scary! rhetorical questions to anon: 1. do you deny women are being discriminated against? 2. if women, or any group for that matter, are being discriminated against, doesn't it make sense to pipe up about it until the problem is resolved?

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

go work in a clinical department at a medical school and work for an MD. the culture is totally different. the idea of mentorship is taken fairly seriously. actually i know several clinical professors who take on PhD postdocs from basic science labs and actively mentor them to get them promoted and onto the faculty (heck, i was one of those phd-postdocs). and the MDs complain a lot about the lack of mentorship wrt career advancement on the basic science side of my institution.

sure, not everyone is like this, but maybe they'd be impressed enough with you to support you doing your own thing for a fraction of the time (maybe 20%). I mean, 20% of something is better than 100% of nothing (which is what it sounds like you have now), right? and they would provide you with candid input about how to move forward either within your own institution or in general... it's hardly a losing proposition except in that it takes time. but remember, if you want to be in the top tier you'll be competing with fellowship-trained MDs, often ones with PhDs, too, who can bring in clinical income right out of the gate. And they'll be on average 34 or so when they start their faculty positions. sure, they won't get an r01 until they're on average 44, but they'll have brought in a lot of clinical dollars in the intervening time.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Scienchick said...

First, mentoring is a two way street and requires active participation from both parties. It's not just about bad mentors--it's about bad mentees. Part of the mentee’s responsibility is to choose a mentor that fits with their style. A good mentor for one person is not necessarily a good mentor for another.

Which brings me to my second point--you have a choice! People need to stop whining about bad mentors and take some responsibility. Grad and postdoc mentors are not assigned, they are chosen. We don’t need mechanisms for evaluating and singling out bad mentors, we need to make sure students and postdocs realize they have the power to choose. The ‘interview’ works both ways. Before joining a lab one should do ‘due diligence’ and interview people working in and associated with the lab. Make an informed choice!

I chose to do my postdoc with a ‘world’s expert.’ I had a pretty good idea from talking to his former students and postdocs that while yes, he is a brilliant guy, he’s also a manipulative asshole. No one came right out and said that, it was what they didn’t say that clued me in. I joined the lab in spite of this because I thought his fame (and getting authorship on a science and cell paper) would help me in my future career—and it did. It wasn’t fun, but I knew why I was there and what I wanted to get in return. I can’t complain.

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could use a bit of mentoring myself.

My old advisor resents me. He is near retirement and has said more than once that he is envious of my future. And not in a friendly way. I thought our professional relationship would improve after I phinished. I helped him submit a grant and left and got a new position. Now he is refusing to write letters of recommendation for me. He has not flat out refused but he has missed the deadline for one thing already. It is not due to forgetfulness. How am I going to get letters of recommendation from him if he continues to be this way?
Or maybe the question is: should I even ask him for recommendations in the future?

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

If possible, go see your advisor in person and tell him you want his honest opinion and ask whether he can support you in your next steps.

Make it clear that you respect him and want his feedback but that you don't want to burden him with writing letters for you. See what he says.

Always give people an 'out.' Most people won't tell you to your face what their problems are with you, but they might make excuses, etc.

Maybe it has nothing to do with you. Maybe he's having health problems and it's just not a priority. Maybe he's getting senile and just forgot.

Having said that, you should always have other people who can write letters for you. Cultivate those relationships now because you're going to need them no matter what. But if you have four other people who are willing and supportive now, ask them instead.

If people want to talk to your advisor, they're going to call him whether he's on your CV or not. You can try to find out what sorts of things he might say or has said in the past- just ask around. If he won't tell you himself, you can still find out if you need to do damage control.

My sympathies. Good luck.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like all the rants, personally.


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