Thursday, March 20, 2008

Are most postdocs and grad students just glorified technicians?

CC said:

Math is a completely different situation, where advisors do their own research and mentor the research of others. In experimental sciences, where the advisor's job is almost entirely driving the research of others, the vast majority of grad students and even postdocs are glorified technicians. They contribute a bunch of figures and some methods and results text to the PI, but do not "write papers" in what I would consider a reasonable sense of the phrase. Only in the top 10 or so programs in the US, and their counterparts internationally, do even a majority really manage publications.

REALLY??

I can't say I would know. But here's what I think.

I've worked at places that are maybe in the top 20, maybe top 30, and at least one or two in the top 10.

So far as I know, most senior grad students were doing a significant portion, if not most of the writing, of their papers. Most postdocs were putting together their own manuscripts... or at least I thought they were?

Ever since my very first paper in grad school, I've been doing everything myself. My advisors have contributed edits only. Which I think is perfectly reasonable.

Having said that, though, my most recent manuscripts have gotten more edits, and more useful comments, from people who are not authors.

In fact, come to think of it, on my last few papers, the second/middle authors contributed a reagent, technical help, and/or maybe up to a paragraph of text.

None of these people made even one figure for the paper. The senior authors did even less than that.

But you wouldn't know that from looking at the author list.

So I think it's hard to know how anyone would have such a broad sampling of that kind of inside information as to be able to comment on 'the vast majority' of grad students or postdocs with regards to manuscript writing.

So far as I know, detailed documentation of actual contributions of individual authors is spotty at best (?).

It has only been recently that journals have started including specifics of author contributions at all in my field. Even now, it's not in all journals, and it's often optional or inaccurate.

Here's the kind of thing we put when it's required of us:

Professor X contributed helpful discussions of the results, and contributed to the writing and editing of the manuscript.

Here it is with the subtext revealed:

Professor X contributed (un)helpful discussions, and contributed (very little) to the writing and editing of (an earlier version) of the manuscript (and hasn't read it since, despite being given multiple drafts, junk food bribes, and a deadline).

And here's what I would have written if I were being completely honest about my advisor's contributions to my last few papers:

Professor X rewrote some of my sentences to make them run-ons. X made me use a title I hate, but the paper got in so I don't care anymore because I'm tired of fighting about it.

Professor Y did not contribute more than a few word changes, but is nevertheless an author since Y's grants funded part of the work.

Professor Z read an early draft of the paper and said it looked fine. Z is an author since the work was done in Z's lab space and we can't afford to piss him off.

What do you think, readers? Is CC right? Are math students so much more independent than we are? Is the vast majority just glorified technicians?

Or is this yet another myth being used as justification for keeping us down?

Is this why NIH gives more grant money to people over 70 than to people under 30?

Maybe we should all just quit and come back in 40 years, and see how science has progressed without us?

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25 Comments:

At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CC doesn't know what the hell he/she is talking about.

I am now research faculty, but at both my previous institutions (1 in top 30, 1 in top 10), grad students and post-docs took sole responsibility for problem formulation, the design and execution of the experiments, and the manuscript writing. Advisors were there to answer questions and provide minor edits. It was also common for post-docs to write their own proposals (no, not just a paragraph, but the whole thing) to national funding agencies. Shocking, eh CC?

 
At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Jake said...

Some are. Some are not. The problem is that all phds are not created equal. At least in the US grad students are often/mostly admitted just to fill TA positions. From a grant perspective grad students are a crap shot. It is usually a low risk low reward operation for most professors. Some students are actually talented are progress to becoming experts in their field (score!). They will write their own papers with their bosses largely just interfering (almost free research). Many others will progress to the master or "journeyman" level where they can be handed a task to complete. They might do the analysis or the figures. The boss will write the paper or at least edit it heavily. Technicians are only expected to do simple tasks. I think we call them glorified technicians just because we set the standards high. They're really MSc level but with the phd union card.
The problem is that anyone who can get into grad school and not drop out will eventually get a phd. I have never seen anyone who have met their course requirements fail to get one (although I have heard of one once).

Good blog by the way! It was "fun" to see how you seemed to progress from being gung-ho to being more cynical. I did a similar thing. I'm on my second (hard science/theoretical) postdoc now but I am leaving this godforsaken game in a few months.

 
At 10:01 AM, Anonymous CC said...

I look forward to hearing what other people think!!!

A few small points in the meantime, though:

1) Math students aren't more independent because they're smarter (they are) or more adult (heavens, no). It's just a completely different system, more like a humanities program than a lab.

2) What "keeps us down" isn't pointing out that most "trainees" aren't really being trained. It's keeping an endless flow of students and postdocs pouring through academic labs by misleading them about their prospects, instead of developing a career path for professional techs like that in industry.

3) Perhaps a good test of who really "wrote the paper" is who wrote the cover letter and submission package?

 
At 10:32 AM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

CC is making a pretty sweeping generalization about experimental sciences. Like you, I drive my own research, have done since I was an undergrad. My PI supports and guides the process but does not tell me what to do. I am not now, nor ever have been a technician grad student or postdoc.
But I appreciate that my case may be more rare than I think it is.

I do accept, and have worked with grad students that are not capable of taking intellectual ownership of their research projects and driving the project independently. These are sadly the students who should have stopped at the masters degree and should never have done a PhD, let alone a postdoc. People have limits and it is not up to PIs to handhold these students through programs that are beyond them. I know that sounds harsh but it is true. It is about knowing your ability and working within it.
On the other hand, some PIs are such control freaks that they set out to handhold their students and postdocs, not giving them the option to develop autonomy.
I don't think students of either type are restricted to specific levels of universities either. People with stunning transcripts can be useless in the lab, and people with less stellar grades can be fantastic.

 
At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think CC is making a broad generalization here. I can't comment on anything beyond my own experiences here. My PhD was almost entirely self-driven. I came up with the idea, convinced my advisor to let me test the hypothesis (as he didn't believe it at first), and wrote the paper myself. He was instrumental in helping me put together figures, edit the text, etc, but the work was done mostly by me. Pretty much every student in my program (not top 10 by any stretch, fair to middling I'd say) published at least one first author paper. One of the things that was stressed to us was that we should think for ourselves and come up with testable hypotheses.

I can say, in my postdoc lab (top 10-plus institution) I've seen some other postdocs who I consider glorified techs. They end up getting high profile papers because they just do what others tell them to. But I wouldn't say they are in the vast majority.

 
At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CC's point is probably that in math there are only two things to do: think; type.

OK, maybe talk comes into it, but there is no stuff to do except think and type.

'Technician' in the math sense is someone that just applies the methods they are told.

Does CC think these don't exist?

Unfortunately I have met people that think that this is what math is.
Of course, those with this attitude don't mind maltreatment as postdocs.

 
At 1:51 PM, Blogger EthidiumBromide said...

The comment surprised me as well. While I certainly cannot speak for all labs, in my lab, the first author writes the paper. It's that simple. Not part of the paper -- the whole thing. Of course, the PI revises it and makes changes, but the initial writing is all done by the graduate student/post-doc. And as far as second/third/etc authors go, each person is responsible for making the figures for their own contribution. I'm some middle author on a paper coming out soon that one of the post-docs wrote; I'm listed as an author because I did a few experiments, analyzed the data, and handed her a good-to-go figure. I'm sure she tweaked the font size and labels and whatnot to conform to the standards of the specific journal, but it's hardly like I gave her an Excel sheet and let her put the data together.
As far as the "glorified technicians", I think that is completely lab-dependent. While my PI constantly has his nose in everyone's business, we design our own experiments, and if things don't work, we have to figure out how to do so; this is not so much the case for technicians. If a technician is having problems with an assay, my PI will sit down with her and go through all the steps and the experimental design and help her figure out the problem. I've been stuck for over 2 years trying to purify the same damn protein, and it's all on my shoulders to figure out how to do this (of course, I also have accumulated more knowledge on purification than my PI, so I doubt he could help me even if he was willing to do so, but that's besides the point).

 
At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In grad school, I came up with my own ideas and wrote my own papers, a mix of top tier and more technical field specific journals. Other students in the lab were similar. However, many other students at the school were far less independent, often acting as technicians.

As a post-doc, I am still independent in my work and writing up results. Interestingly, the students here are much less independent...to the point that my PI often asks me about potential project ideas for grad students. My response is that they should figure that out for themselves. There are a few students that are very independent though (exception to the rule). The post-docs I have interacted with over time seem to be, on average, more independent.

 
At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, I just posted the comment (that has not been approved) about how I was fairly independent as a grad student (and still am a post-doc).

You need not publish this comment, but I wanted to let you know that I found your blog by googling K99 score. I just got my score back and was curious what google had to tell me about k99 scores. I read a bit of what you had to say. Amusing.

 
At 3:34 PM, Blogger Mikael said...

I wouldn't know to what extent grads and postdocs in the experimental sciences are reduced to lab technicians - but I definitely can confirm the image of mathematics CC gives.

I have two publications, one each out of my MSc and PhD theses, and the theses themselves. I've done two drafts in addition to these, and on one of them I based a lot of what I was doing on work previously done by my advisor. At one point I suggested I put him as coauthor, and was told - with some emphasis - that this was unsuitable, since he simply hadn't done enough work to be included.

And this attitude is as prevalent as the density of single-author papers in mathematics. The norm is that ONLY people who have actually contributed results (as in proven theorems et c.) are listed as coauthors, and you would expect to be able to talk about subtleties about any paper with basically any coauthor and get coherent answers.

My advisor tells me about some time from his postdoc time, that he had done so many collaborative articles that he needed to stop collaborating for a while, to establish a publication record of single-author papers to make sure he seemed to be able to produce independent research as well, and would not look like a freeloader to future search committees.

So, yeah, authorship in mathematics seems to work quite differently from authorship in the experimental sciences.

 
At 3:56 PM, Anonymous jasonbourne said...

CC hasa point I am afraid. Math students(together with all grad students in social sciences) are entirely independent since they are not paid by their PI's so it is more like a hobby rather than a job. They are supported by TA'ships rather than RA'ships which is common in physical and life sciences. The reasoning is simple. There are very few research grants awarded to mathematicians. Where I did my Ph.D.(a top 20 institution) physics department had 120 grad students while math had 40 and this is not atypical. Well, if the PI has no research grant to work on anything, why would he care what you do? He has no stake in your project.

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

For my dept., Geosciences, all grad students write their papers. At least myself, my husband and the others I talk with. BUT it is depressing that when you graduate everyone thinks it's your adviser's work. My husband found out this "concept" in his post doc, the other post docs told him this. Yet, its like you say-what would they do without us. He did all the work, did all the writing, all the plots, the thought process. The idea and project was all his ideas. (this is my situation as well). Of course you bounce your ideas off your prof to make sure you aren't missing something but in my opinion they do little in terms of the final projects.

 
At 5:46 PM, Anonymous JR said...

I think CC is over-estimating the actual exercise of writing the paper. For the experimental sciences, the development of methods and generation of figures/results is the paper. The actual writing of the paper is just the presentation.

I remember friends of mine in English and History graduate programs were amazed that I wrote my graduate thesis in a couple of weeks. All the work was already done. I just collected my papers together under one cover. For them, "writing the thesis" included all the research that went into the thesis.

 
At 6:27 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Sorry for the delay in posting these, I did all the ones I had so if yours isn't here, I didn't get it.

CC,
For the record, since my very first paper as an itty-bitty grad student, I have written my own cover letter for my papers.

I don't know what you mean by submission package. I make all the figures, I write all the text, including the cover letter, so I'm the one who has to make sure it's all formatted correctly and gets uploaded to the website (or mailed out by FedEx, in the olden days).

Whether or not your PI lets you use the 'corresponding author' designation, many of us do this part of the job because despite all the expense riding on our papers, we're still way more invested in seeing them get published than our PIs are.

My next paper will increase my total publications by ~10%, while it will increase the senior author's total by ~1%. That kind of increase isn't even worth the trouble of writing the cover letter!




I agree that the endless flow of lemmings is a major source of keeping us down.

I think our best bet is to try to educate, educate, educate. The public, the younger students, and the people who control the purse strings.

Oh and thanks for the jibe that mathematicians are smarter (!). I disagree with the use of those kinds of generalizations, too. But I think you were kidding since I know some math students, and there's really no validity to saying they're more adult. In any way.

(Let's put it another way: aren't there more math students who are still virgins? In grad school??)

!

I think JR has a point about how writing is a small part of the process, although I would argue that it matters quite a bit how you tell the story, how you choose what to show and how to make it accessible and convincing. It might not take remotely as long to write it as it did to do the experiments, but it's still hard to do it really well, and it can take at least as long to get it ACCEPTED AT A JOURNAL as all the rest of the work put together.

!

JasonBourne makes a good point, though, about how the less well-funded, equipment-independent academic disciplines might involve the PI less, just because nobody cares to abuse the recruits as much (beyond getting the teaching requirements taken care of).

I also really like Anon 1:29's point that there could very well be some mathematical 'technicians', too. My guess would be yes, there probably are, although I'm sure CC would say there's fewer.

 
At 6:44 PM, Blogger WomanScientist said...

I think this is very much dependent on the PI. For example, my PI expects his lab members to do the vast majority of the writing, including grants, animal protocols, biosafety protocols and papers. (Still haven't figured out why he's "so busy"!) I would never want my advisor to write a paper for me, as I feel I have a much more intimate knowledge of the data and what it means. It just feels wrong too. It's my data and I want to take responsibility for it. Obviously this becomes significantly more complicated when a larger number of authors are contributing to the data.

On the other hand, another PI in my program does all the paper writing for his students. I think it really just comes down to variations in management/advising style.

 
At 5:21 AM, Blogger Caro said...

I've written all my papers as well, since I was a post grad. But I love your what the authors really did list - if only...

 
At 10:37 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

WomanScientist,

Yes, this is exactly the point.

CC wants to blame the postdocs, but we would say it's more often a decision the PI makes, based on their perception of priorities.

Is it faster and/or easier to write the paper yourself than to teach someone how to write well?

Yes, probably. Especially if you think you're a great writer (most PIs do).

Is it 'training'?

Not at all.

 
At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Let's put it another way: aren't there more math students who are still virgins? In grad school??)

My maths department was quite saucy :-)

 
At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One difference between mathematics and experimental sciences is that in experimental sciences a paper tends to be the tip of the iceburg as far as the work concerned. In math, the work is mostly represented on the page.

As a result, many members of a lab may end up on a paper, sometimes this is the only way that their contributions to the labs output are recognized academically, even if technically they had little to do with this paper.

By comparison, as a mathematician, I would never include a co-author who had not done substantial amounts of the work actually shown in the paper. It makes no difference if that person was my graduate advisor. I published a number of short papers & conference papers as a graduate student as a single author. My advisor would never have considered being an author on work he didn't do himself.

 
At 3:01 PM, Anonymous CC said...

A few more clarifications:

1) I guess it was unclear that "aren't...because they're smarter (they are) or more adult (heavens, no)" means that they're smarter but less mature. As for smarter: they are smarter, on average, than biologists, just like physicists are. There are fewer slots, the fields demand more raw brainpower and there's far less incentive to just get another pair of hands into the lab. (Especially when there is no lab!) My ego can survive admitting that. Did you know that physics majors do better on the MCAT biology part than biology majors do?

2) The bit about math "technicians" is aesthetic snobbery that has nothing to do with my point. For purposes of this discussion, biologists and mathematicians who fundamentally drive their own projects are not "technicians" regardless of what you, I or someone else thinks about their work.

3) I'm not sure why you think I'm "blaming postdocs". On the contrary, I'm putting most of the blame on the advisors who mislead and neglect them.

 
At 4:13 PM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

In some ways, I feel like a technician. My project was my advisor's idea, she secured the funding for it, and if I weren't working on it she would hire a technician to do it. However, I am responsible for it now, including doing the bench work, analyzing and interpreting data, making figures, and writing the text. The project was hers initially, but I have influenced where it's going. Now I would say that it's ours -- my thesis in her lab. It feels synergistic.

In my field, I assume the first author of a paper wrote the bulk of the text. Furthermore, a paper shouldn't be part of a dissertation if the student isn't first author. So, I will write all of my papers myself.

 
At 2:32 PM, Blogger EthidiumBromide said...

CC:
I don't think you can judge the intelligence of someone based on their eventual chosen field. Perhaps a wide generalization applies to undergrads (re: your comment on MCAT scores, which is much more likely to be taken by undergrads than by post-docs), but this wasn't referencing undergrads; rather, graduate students and post-docs. In math, it's a fairly direct pipline. You want a Ph.D. in math? You have an undergrad degree in math. This isn't the case at all for a lot of biology-related Ph.D. programs. In our lab, the post-doc undergraduate degrees range from physics to computer science to biochemistry to biology, but they are all doing a post-docs in biology. I, personally, have undergrad degrees in chemistry and political science and minors in math and biology. In every single math course I took, I scored the highest on every single exam, and all my professors encouraged me to continue in the field for graduate studies. Did my intelligence decrease the moment I accepted a graduate school invitation for biomedical research instead?

 
At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I don't write my own papers now, but that's because I don't think it's as important as you all make it out to be. I can write a great paper in a few days, and I just don't care at this point. My PI writes them after I give him the experimental and some figures. I'd rather do the experiments and heavily edit and rearrange the paragraphs in my advisor's first draft. That way, I don't have to switch gears as often and we both can work faster. It takes a lot of time for me to switch into paper-writing mode, and I'd rather be the 'official copy editor for the entire group' for now.

Presenting your stuff? Easy. When I have to I'll do it. I wrote the candidacy paper in a few days and it was awesome. I've given lots of oral presentations at national meetings. But I have an English degree, so I don't have the fear that when I'll actually have to write the paper myself, I'll freeze up and be unable to do it. In experimental science it's really not that important. If I'm a PI, I'll do it; it won't be an issue. What's important is looking on SciFinder correctly to make sure you didn't miss a reference that is crucial (that may have come out in the last few months). That's the hardest part. You've got to choose your keywords correctly...

Writing is, like most things in life, mostly about self-confidence. After a bit of rudimentary knowledge of conventions, you're on your way if you don't doubt yourself. A recent paper in a high-ranking journal in my field was obviously written by people who know the language very, very poorly. It was a travesty of a well written document and was full of grammatical mistakes and boring over-analysis of useless data that should have been in the experimental or on a pharmacy store shelf marked as a 'sedative'. But hey, it was understandable and possible to follow and the result was good. This is science after all. It's not like I'm back in my undergrad college writing my 50-100 page 4th year honors thesis on 20th century Carribean Literature or some crap like that.

 
At 9:49 AM, Blogger Sitafaar said...

This blog is simple verification for me that the PhD is a waste of time. Better to abandon science and find your dreams elsewhere...i.e. medical school, law school, etc; even climbing the corporate ladder is a better investment of time than most PhDs.

 
At 6:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone heard of a situation where a postdoc is telling a grad student exactly what to do, and taking all the grad student's data and publishing it as their own because it is part of a 'larger project'? I'm in a tricky situation here.

 

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