Monday, March 17, 2008

Response to comments on last post

Stupid blogger is having problems posting my responses in the comment section. So here they are.

Anon 2:25,

Yes, several of us have suggested that mandatory retirement or some kind of senior advisory status (different from Investigator) might make a lot of sense.

They'd give up their lab space and equipment and exploiting their lab members, but they'd still be a great resource for oral history.

Most of the older scientists I know, that's all they want anyway. They want someone to tell them about their data, and ask their advice. Isn't that the most fun part anyway?

There are few faculty I know of who are genuinely doing the full job anymore at that age. They are all delegating to superdocs and grad students.

Anon 8:36,

I hadn't heard about Science Debate 2008, so I went and looked at the website.

I wish they'd debate stem cells, but they won't!

hee hee!

Agreed that most Nobel Laureates can't really speak to this issue.
I don't know any personally, although I've met a few, and I think it's fair to say their experiences are usually way out on the edge of the bell curve.

AAAS fellowship is something I've thought about pretty seriously, if this research thing doesn't work out. My fear is that it's the opposite of a postdoc- I don't think they just let you decide what you want to work on.

Anon 2:07,

I agree that it's totally idiotic to support people who got jobs during the least selective time over people who are coming in now (!). Totally stupid.

I know a few of these guys, and let's just put it this way: they're calling me and asking how to do experiments. I'm having to tell them they won't be able to publish without controls.

Yeah. Guys like that. Yippee.

I've always thought the definition of 'young investigator' was preposterous. Even sillier now as the age of 'young' is creeping up and up.

Anon 2:54,

Someone sent me a cartoon the other day, I wish I could post it but I can't reveal who it was. Basically they were saying their lab is having a hard time getting their RO1s renewed, because they already have >5 RO1s and several millions of dollars in funding, and not that many people actually working in the lab.


Oh and did I mention this is one of those labs where the postdocs write the RO1s, but they don't get credit as co-PIs?

Most, if not all, of the 'haves' I know of are exploiters in the extreme.

The worst of them are liars in the extreme as well, which is why they are the Haves.

But I've posted about that before.

The PIs I know who are on the older edge (I'm talking >60) are not training anyone enough to merit their enormous pay and mismanaged lab space;

none of them are innovative on their own, they just push through ideas that their lab members feed them;

and they're only productive in name because they get credit for the work of their slaves.


Let's put it this way. I was reading a book the other day and one of the characters visited a southern plantation sometime in the 1970s. She went on a tour of the place and there was no mention of slaves.

So she asked. "What about the slaves?"

And the tourguide said, with a straight face, that there weren't any.

So she took the tourguide over to the place where the slaves' graves were marked with single stones, and said something like , "Are you seriously trying to tell me you really think this tobacco plantation of >100 acres was farmed by a family of four?"

Needless to say, she ended up changing the way those tours were done, forever!

I realize our situation isn't quite as severe, but if you'll bear with the analogy, we need someone to do the equivalent "Are you seriously telling me you think these old geezers are actually writing all their own grants and coming up with all this innovation???"


At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

no postdoc in the lab i'm in is writing our PI's grants. and each postdoc here wrote her/his own NRSA. we're getting trained, and we're getting trained well. my old phd advisor is almost 65 and still writes his R01s by himself. i know this because he sends me a draft every now and then to proofread. he's not a native english speaker, so i read for the english. i know another old PI who actually does his own experiments in the lab. i don't know if he does all the grant writing himself (probably not) but he does set a great example of someone who loves to do science and train people. i have other specific examples. i think you and others have been burned by people who just suck, but maybe you don't see the great people who actively contribute to science and teaching the new generation.

to your friend who wrote the R01: if you want change, why go so far as to write the R01 for the PI? i don't get that logic at all. if you are a stellar postdoc, you should know better than to let all your ideas and efforts go unnoticed. it is NOT a one-way street. a good postdoc experience teaches you how to become a PI. not just an extension of grad student-esque slavery.

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Jenny F. Scientist said...

To be fair to my own advisor, who's heading for 65, I have to say that he does write his own grants, except for maybe a paragraph at a time from the person actually working on it, and that he is the source for at least half of the ideas in the lab, and that he does offer some training depending on what you're looking for (and how much you suck up). And Dr. S's former advisor- also about 65- is a great mentor and is still very productive herself, independent of her worker bees. So there are at least a couple out there. I'm willing to guess they're outnumbered by the other kind, though. We talk about it sometime- it seems like it would be easier to have mandatory retirement rather than fire not-working people, but there are definitely some productive faculty who would lose out.

And that thing where you're not supposed to be able to get more than two RO1s? Ha. Ha ha ha.

At 7:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing how speaking up at the right time can make change. I do hope that more PIs are listening.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous CC said...

In general, I agree that there's a disconnect between this "Brilliant, Crucial Research Not Being Funded!" stuff and the reality of what *is* getting funded.

But the idea that postdocs are routinely swinging RO1s for their clueless PI's still doesn't mesh with my experiences. The vast majority of postdocs don't write their own papers, let alone RO1s. And ones who can write grant applications aren't in the labs of PIs who can't. (Although there are a lot of postdocs who *think* they're "writing the grants" because they contributed a few raw pages of text to the application.)

Are these very senior postdocs kept around a not-very-good institution by spousal obligation or something like that? I'm having trouble imagining what puts a postdoc that good into the lab of such a bad PI.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I counted, and the PIs I know of who write their own grants entirely (with proofreading or otherwise partial contributions from postdocs) vs. the PIs who have the postdocs do the vast majority of the work (which includes writing all the text, making all the figures, and coming up with the all the aims) is about 50:50.

It's a spectrum, like sexuality and the social skills of scientists.

I don't know if it's a gaussian distribution, though, or where the peak is.

I suspect it's different at R1 and private institutions, since we have the most postdocs.

No postdocs = less experienced slaves.

"if you want change, why go so far as to write the R01 for the PI? i don't get that logic at all. if you are a stellar postdoc, you should know better"

"I'm having trouble imagining what puts a postdoc that good into the lab of such a bad PI."

It's very simple, and it goes like this.

1. You want to do science, you work with somebody who is well funded.

2. You want a job, you put up with crap from Famous PI to get a letter from Famous PI. Even if that includes writing their grants.

3. It starts out as 'good experience' and becomes slave labor when you realize you're not getting credit for it and that it's really not your job.

In many ways, the postdocs who do this are destined to be much more successful than the postdocs who have been entirely sheltered from the process of putting together an R01.

But it's an abuse of the system. It's a giant loophole.

NIH and the universities are in denial about the identities of the actual authors of these grants.

Oh and I've mentioned we're reviewing your papers?

Next time you get a ridiculous paper review, ask yourself this question:

Was this reviewed by a grad student or postdoc?

The answer is probably yes.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Maxwell's Demoness said...

I really don't think a "mandatory retirement" is a good idea. My PI is pushing 67 and is still seriously in the game. She doesn't touch the bench, but writes all the grants, comes up with most of the ideas, helps extensively with troubleshooting and paper writing, and is great about giving credit where credit is due. On the other hand, we have recent faculty hires who were hired because they work on "trendy topic X" but are total morons... I've been helping *them* design experiments and use their shiny equipment but will I get credit? No....

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous Maths Postdoc said...

The vast majority of postdocs don't write their own papers, let alone RO1s.

Why do I keep hearing about postdocs who don't write their own papers? This is completely surreal.

At 3:26 PM, Anonymous CC said...

2. You want a job, you put up with crap from Famous PI to get a letter from Famous PI. Even if that includes writing their grants.

Unless you're using "famous" as a euphemism for "decomposing", PIs like that are, in my experience, entirely capable of writing grant applications.

At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ms.PhD

I contributed to my former PIs grants and reviewing manuscripts. And you know what - it makes me a better PI now. It is called mentoring. How many postdocs out there wish they had the chance to write part of the R01? So they would know what to do when it came to be THEIR grant? As for giving ideas to the PI for their grant - isn't it a two way street. Doesn't he ever give you an idea for your experiments?

I really don't understand you: you bitch because you don't get enough opportunities to be mentored, and then when he gives you one - you bitch because you're doing "his work".

You are a confusing girl.

Maybe it would be helpful if you changed your perspective of these "slave jobs" and look at them as opportunities to learn and prepare yourself for the next chapter (whatever that choice might be).

At 5:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenny F, look in the Feb 28 issue of Nature (the issue about malaria). There is a small graphic showing the # of investigators who got funded and the # of grants they got. so someone got 11 grants. (i am assuming they include R01's.) check it out :)

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do see a bit of a spectrum in just how much offloading is done to postdocs/grad-students in terms of grant writing, paper reviewing (and back when there was cheap money, VC funding), but I think it leans to more offloading with the more money that is coming in.

I generally stayed clear of it, but I can personally attest to writing two facultyof1000 reviews (the PI was familiar with the work, but he posted it as his own writing which it was not). Also I have seen postdocs burdened by writing an entire grant virtually on their own.

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I know exactly what you mean. But if we might ask politely, how did your PI get her job? Sad to say, she was probably either a) married to someone they wanted to hire and/or b) already 10x better than any of the men they could have hired for her position 'back in the day.'

I especially like the part where you say she's great about giving credit where credit is due. She sounds like a gem.

Maths Postdoc,

Well, in our field it depends.

In the labs I've worked in, the papers would not exist if I didn't write them myself.

There are other prominent labs nearby, though, where the PI won't let the postdocs do the writing, and if they do, he rewrites almost every sentence anyway.

Again, a spectrum, but I would tend to disagree with the person who said 'most' postdocs don't write their own papers. At least not where I've worked.


That made me laugh, but no, these PIs are not that old.

See amusing comment below yours from someone who clearly thinks they know the definition of mentoring.

Anon 3:39,

Of course there is a way to mentor someone and have them make contributions to grants and reviewing manuscripts and learn from the experience.

If every PI did that with all their mentees, I wouldn't have this blog.

But you need to realize there is also an extreme version of 'soliciting' 'contributions' which is lazy at best, and abusive at worst.

Oh and by the way, if you think about your science and treat your colleagues the way you sounded in this comment, you perfectly personify the problems that define why I write this blog.

In your comment you come across sounding like a sexist jerk who is probably a bad mentor and a closed-minded scientist.

I don't know if that was your intention or not.

You might want to think about editing your writing, or better yet, your thoughts.

If I confuse you and you keep reading, maybe you're learning something from visiting here.

But I can't promise to publish all your comments if this is how they come across.

Anon 5:16,

That's exactly the figure that was sent to me in a modified format. I suspect many versions are going around with snide comments stenciled across them!

But I think Jenny F might have been referring to a recent proposal to change the granting system.

Obviously it's not going to be simple, politics-free, or happen overnight.

I did see a good quote the other day about how all change comes about from the efforts of a small group of determined citizens. I think it was Margaret Mead? I might add it to the sidebar someday.

At 9:13 AM, Anonymous CC said...

Why do I keep hearing about postdocs who don't write their own papers? This is completely surreal.

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.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, except that they're led to believe they're being trained for faculty positions that they couldn't possible fill with the experience they've been given.

I did see a good quote the other day about how all change comes about from the efforts of a small group of determined citizens. I think it was Margaret Mead?

It is, but Proof By Margaret Mead is a lot less convincing now that her research has been shown to be overwhelmingly inaccurate.

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Maxwell's Demoness said...

Ms. Phd,

In response to your question.... Both, actually. Sigh.


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