Friday, June 06, 2008

How, indeed.

kcsphil asked, [edited for typos by yours truly]

If the PI's don't keep current on lab techniques and then teach them to the grad students or post-docs, how do the PIs expect to get their science done? And what's the point in having them mentor the grad students or Post-docs if they have nothing to teach?

This question is really loaded with possibilities. I'm going to try to break it down in parts but I'm SURE the comments will pick up on anything I might miss.

1. If the PI's don't keep current on lab techniques

In general: they can't. They don't. "Current on lab techniques" to a PI is what they learn

a) at meetings, where they see data presented in a talk (that includes their own lab meetings)

b) from reading

c) in the ideal case, if they go on sabbatical.

"Current on lab techniques" to those of us in the trenches is

a) tried it
b) multiple ways
c) have seen all the things that can go wrong
d) know how to fix them.

2. how do the PIs expect to get their science done?

This makes me laugh.

The system right now is predicated on a hierarchy. All labs are different, but typically there are two types of lab members.

a) Senior members.

This includes the PI, lab managers who have been there more than a couple of years, grad students nearing the end of their PhD, and postdocs getting ready to leave.

The benefit of these people is that they serve as the 'institutional memory', if you will, of the lab.

The drawback is that they are usually very busy, often beyond the point of really learning the newest hottest techniques, and/or one foot out the door.

b) junior members.

That's you, new grad students and new postdocs. You don't know the history of the lab, and if you switched fields after your PhD, you might not know much about the history of the field (beyond what you've learned from your extensive reading!).

The old Apprenticeship model, upon which science is supposedly based, went something like this:

Master trains first Apprentice.
Apprentice becomes Journeyman.
Journeyman trains subsequent Apprentices.
Disputes and promotion decisions are resolved by the Master.
Only when the Master dies, or if a new position opens up in a faraway village, is the Journeyman promoted.

(sound familiar?)

The main problem with this system, you understand, is that it is at least in part a game of telephone. In each round, some of the original information gets lost or distorted.

The main advantage of this system is the division of labor. The Master supervises. Because the 'team', as it were, has grown, production can increase.

3. And what's the point in having them mentor the grad students or Post-docs if they have nothing to teach?

As many of us have written before, it's not that PIs have nothing to teach. It's just that they're not really taught how to be good mentors and/or don't want to, and there is nothing in the system now that really forces them to.

Mentoring and teaching are different things.

Once upon a time, in a different era, PIs spent more time with their grad students. Labs were not so big; publishing was very slow before the internet; there were no such thing as postdocs.

The main incentive to mentor AND teach was to create Journeymen.

The quickest way to get an Apprentice to the Journeyman level is to teach them how to design, execute, troubleshoot and interpret experiments.

PIs had to do this themselves if they wanted their lab to be productive.

As the postdoc position became more prevalent, PIs were able to stay farther and farther away from the Apprentices.

Good PIs take their senior Journey-people under their wing and help them learn how to write papers and grants, polish their talks, mediate collaborations and reagent requests, and help them figure out their next career step(s).

That's the kind of mentoring we're typically talking about. Career mentoring, which is really one step up from the actual day-to-day of getting experiments to work.

But essentially this means that Journeymen (postdocs) are the ones who are teaching the Apprentices (grad students) how to design, execute, troubleshoot, and interpret their experiments. It's not that the Master is not involved. In some labs, they are. But in most labs I've seen, the Master makes a 'suggestion' and the Apprentice makes a beeline for the Journeyman who has actually used that technique, to ask whether to do it and how. Some Masters know this, some do not.

Masters are often too busy to notice. There is plenty for PIs to do because the operations are much bigger now than they used to be. Grants are harder to get, and papers are harder to publish. Projects are bigger, longer, and way more expensive than they used to be. And it's all a lot more competitive than it once was.

Unfortunately, Journey-people are not rewarded for mentoring Apprentices. Many of us do it, generosity of spirit, mostly (or if we're lucky, for middle-authorship and brownie points with the Master). In the long run, we gain experience. So when we have our own labs (if), we will be able to mentor our first Apprentices until we can get some Journey-people of our own.

PIs are typically good mentors if

a) they like helping people or doing experiments (in which case they might suck at getting funding because they're not spending enough time writing grants or papers)

b) they don't want to be embarrassed at their students' committee meetings

c) they don't have postdocs to pick up the slack

But as you'll note,

(a) is dangerous and rare simply by natural selection;

(b) is not much of an incentive because grad students are cheap and plentiful, easily replaced, so the strategy is more of a screening than a cultivation;

(c) is rare in the current climate because postdocs are cheap, plentiful, productive, and terrified of demanding even the most basic maintenance level of mentoring.

There is the extremely rare case where the PIs is wildly successful AND a good mentor because they just like helping people.

But my strong impression is that in MOST of those cases, behind the scenes the postdocs are actually writing large parts of the grants and otherwise doing significantly more work to keep the lab afloat than they're getting credit for, out of sheer survival instinct.

You might think you're joining a lab to work with the (famous) Master. But it's not about the destination. It's about the Journey.

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At 12:28 PM, Blogger Dr. Burt said...

Great comments. I think back on my own Ph.D. advisor and he had the rare combination of being a great mentor and haing success in his field. I think with him it came down to being a genuinely nice guy in a field full of buttholes. He was a friend and consummate professional but not to the point of being "friendly" with his graduate students. He gave us slack but not to the point where he was not afraid to call you out for being lazy (most of the time in front of the rest of the group at group meetings). He would give graduate students second, third, fourth chances to come back into his good graces if they screwed up. I remember one time, I missed a lecture in his graduate course (I might have been sick or busy, I can't remember) but he took the time to sit down with me in his office and teach me the day's lesson one-on-one. He had noticed I had not been there and wanted me, one of HIS graduate students, to really know the material.

Did he stay current in his field? Not as much as he would like, I'm sure, and I think he would admit that. He tries his best, but with teaching, running the research group, departmental administrative responsibilities, etc., he does not enough hours in the day left over to learn all of the techniques that push the envelope in our field. To his credit though, he had a habit of bringing in postdocs who were bright enough to seek out new ways of solving old problems. By bringing in these talented individuals (and, NO not ALL of them were great, just most of them), techniques in our group caught up with the rest of the field.

At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have a way to be contacted other than this site? I would love to talk to you about your experience, but am uncomfortable about doing so in public. - lifesci postdoc, who left but almost wants to come back...

At 5:46 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

"Only when the Master dies, or if a new position opens up in a faraway village, is the Journeyman promoted."

Love the apprenticing analogy. This quote reminded me of a post I had been meaning to do...

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dr. Burt-

Agreed, it's a trade-off.

What I've noticed is the lag-time. Depends on what field you're in. But when other groups have been doing quantitative PCR for years and your lab is just realizing it exists, you know lag time is a factor.


I do have an email account at yfsblog at gmail. I don't check it often but you can email me there.


I've mentioned the analogy before but I don't think I ever wrote out all the steps like this. It was an interesting exercise for me to write it out, so you might want to do your own post anyway if you have things to add.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

One thing that both astonishes and gratifies me about my current Advisor is that he actually apologizes to me when he doesn't know something about the technique I'm using. He means it, too. He's mortified that he can't help me troubleshoot as much as he would like.

These advisor types are one in a hundred, or thousand. But wow, am I getting spoiled. I hope someday I can "spoil" my own trainees in similar fashion.

At 1:36 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

Great post, love the analogy - except that it puts me as a PI in a position of 'mastery' and I'm not very comfortable with that idea. A very wise scientist once said to me that if you think you actually know something and there's nothing more to find out it's time to quit. Now, from your post, you clearly understand that and if anything are arguing that not enough PIs are still aware that they need to learn anything. I just find the connotations of the phrase 'Master' uncomfortable.

Possibly because too many of my colleagues behave as if it's true that they have, for once and all time, 'mastered' their subject matter and are not to be questioned! I'm on a learning journey as much as anyone else in my group, I've just been travelling longer and have a larger array of ideas and tips and knowledge of the road than a beginning student - but learning is always two-way or I can't do my job. How can you mentor someone in learning if you don't learn?

I often use the analogy though, especially with despairing research students - your thesis is your apprentice piece, that is, it's not meant to be perfect, it's meant to demonstrate that you have acquired the knowledge and the skills to produce work of acceptable standard. Part of that is often being able to explain what you'd do differently if you started over...

Hmmm. Think I'd better go away and waffle about this on my own blog!


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