Friday, June 20, 2008

That's me, the young spaghetti monster.

Some funny typos in the comments over at this post by PhysioProf at Drugmonkey regarding my last post.

Seems to me there were some misreadings here, although I'm sure I'm at least partly to blame for not writing clearly.

Funny though, the commenters over here seem to have read it clearly enough...

So PP starts in like this:

A senior post-doc is responsible for a particular project, and possibly supervises one or two technicians or grad students. A junior PI is responsible for multiple projects, and supervises an entire lab full of people, perhaps as many as a dozen.

To which I say, look, I'm talking about a really junior prof here. Someone who just got their job, who definitely doesn't have an R01 yet or maybe hasn't renewed their first R01 yet.

Someone like that should NOT have a dozen people.

In fact, I'm not convinced anyone ever should. There are good data to show that no one can effectively supervise more than 8 people at a time. I'm in favor of capping lab size for that reason, if not for all the other obvious ones this blog frequently highlights.

A senior post-doc needs to motivate herself--and maybe one or two other people--to be productive. A junior PI needs to motivate a entire lab full of people to be productive.

Hi, I have a MUCH bigger problem. I have to motivate my PI. My whole career depends on it. And my PI has a lot less incentive to do what I ask, because of the power differential.

It's MUCH easier to motivate people when you have authority on your side.

It requires a lot more creativity to figure out what your supervisor wants, in order to get them to do what you need.

A senior post-doc is not responsible for securing funding to support her project. A junior PI must take a limited amount of start-up funds and leverage it into long-term external financial support for an entire laboratory.

Wrong. Just wrong. What senior postdocs have you been talking to?

Most of us are past the point of our fellowships expiring. That's why the K99 (et al.) are so coveted.

Have you SEEN an application for a K99? It's an R01, PLUS a whole extra section on career plan.

Have you seen the numbers on how many are awarded vs. how many applications are submitted? They're MORE competitive than R01s. More. Not less.

A senior post-doc needs to plan her research project on the time scale of a couple of years, essentially looking towards the next paper or two as an endpoint.

I think that's a very dangerous way to do a postdoc. The flip side is, more PIs need to think this way about projects, in terms of what is necessary to complete a publishable unit that will advance the career of the postdoc or grad student who is doing the work.

The PIs I've worked with have always been reluctant to view projects in terms of short-term rewards as the necessary currency for the job market.

A junior PI must take a long-term view of a minimum of five years for each project in the laboratory, and must also take a big picture view of how the projects relate one to the other and fit together in an overall research program.

Again, why aren't more senior postdocs doing this?

To me, if you have a halfway decent project you want to take with you when you leave, you BETTER be doing this from the beginning of your postdoc project.

I know I have. I know PP thinks this is stupid. So there again, we disagree. I think you have to do both the short and long-term planning, always. Regardless of where you are in your career. To do anything else is just foolish.

A senior post-doc needs to have an impressive enough CV to convince a hiring committee to give the post-doc a shot at runnning her own operation. A junior PI needs to convince an entire field that their research is integral to the advancement of that field and develop an international reputation as an outstanding scientist in order to earn tenure and get to keep her job.

This right here sums up what disgusts me about our current system.

What the fuck is a postdoc for, then? Sounds like a royal fucking waste of time to me.

Oh wait, I already know that. I've done the experiment!

Seriously though, what I am doing is trying to convince my entire field that my research is integral to the advancement of science. Period. Because what the hell else are we doing this for.

I'm not in it for having a shining CV. Can't take that with you.

What matters in life is making a difference.

Too bad we don't know what great contributions PP has made thus far. Hopefully something good, but somehow I doubt that was part of the career plan.


PP digresses a bit to talk about why it's bad for a PI to send out a paper without making sure the 'first author' agrees with what's written. This was brought up by one of FSP's posts.

Yup, that's bad.

I always show shit to my trainees before presenting or submitting it and say: "Yo, can I say this shit? Is this shit right?" And I make it very clear that I embrace their criticism, and that I will never, ever, ever be angry if they tell me that my conclusions are wrong. But I will be very, very, very angry if they tacitly allow us to submit or present something that isn't correct.

It is a specific management skill to effectively get people you supervise to be completely open and free with telling you things they think you might want not to hear. And post-docs do not have to exhibit this skill very much, if at all.

And yet here again I have to disagree with the PP point of view.

It is VERY hard to convince a PI, once they have it in their head that they know what the data show, that it doesn't actually show that.

And we postdocs can only argue up to a point without getting in deep doo-doo.

So sometimes a PI steps in it. Not because we didn't try to warn them.

But we're the ones who get blamed, ultimately, when it hits the fan.

And as for managing people and getting them to tell you things you might not want to hear? Postdocs manage students. Students are the MOST prone to this tendency to avoid telling you the experiment didn't work. They're always afraid it was their fault, or that you'll be upset it didn't work as you hoped.

So yeah, we do that too, believe it or not. Even postdocs do that too.


It is absolutely delusional to think that "a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI". And adopting the attitude that this is the case is actually harmful to both senior post-docs and junior PIs.

Delusional, my ass. Only if you're wasting your postdoctoral time as somebody else's bench slave!

My point, dear PP, is that the line between senior postdoc and junior PI is a whole lot blurrier than some might want to believe.

Very similar to how the difference between a very senior grad student and someone with a PhD is often minimal or even meaningless. The day of the defense is just another day. The presentation, just another presentation. The straw that breaks the camel's back, as it were.

In other words, it's a hoop. A sometimes meaningless distinction. An incredibly important, almost arbitrary distinction that makes all the difference in the world.

I really enjoyed Bill's comments on PPs point, since he pointed out that if being a PI requires a totally different skill set, as PP purports, then what the hell are we doing as postdocs.

This central paradox has always been obvious to me, and is basically the whole point of why I have this blog.

I won't deny that I've learned a helluva lot as a postdoc. But I have to wonder why I had to go out of my way to learn it, because the most important things I've learned have been in no way part of my pseudo-official postdoctoral 'training.'

And I'll never understand why ANYONE thinks it's good or fair that I had to learn all of it in such shitty circumstances.

With NO guarantee that it's an investment in a future no one is sure I'll EVER have.

And I have to wonder why, when I've gone to such great lengths to learn all these things, people like PP assume that none of these things have occurred to me (or to you, my gentle fellow postdoc readers!).

Why, I wonder with my useless PhD and several years of potentially worthless postdoctoral experience, does everyone still always assume I'm an idiot.

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At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I really enjoyed Bill's comments on PPs point, since he pointed out that if being a PI requires a totally different skill set, as PP purports, then what the hell are we doing as postdocs."

Bill here.

Yes, I found it incredibly telling that physioprof went out of his way to point out how "delusional" you are. But then went on to say how success as a postdoc has nothing do do with success as a PI. If that is the case, why the fuck are we doing this? I hazard to guess that, if there was a random drawing every year that picked recent PhD graduates to be PIs, the success rate would be just as high as those who have labored 5+ years as postdocs.

At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That PP guy is pretty good at knocking down strawmen…

Of course a PI has different responsibilities than a senior postdoc, just as someone acquires new responsibilities when they start their first job. But do their accomplishments and knowledge magically transform to a higher level the moment they start the new job?

The underlying objectionable thing here, as I see it, is that academia pretends that PIs/faculty are people who have “made the grade” whereas postdocs, regardless of seniority, still haven’t; that there is some great divide between them, not just in their level of responsibility but in their intrinsic quality as scientists. So that, e.g., it is perfectly natural and appropriate that a senior postdoc should be forced to work for the greater glory of, and defer to the scientific judgment of, and generally be treated as a lesser scientist than, a junior PI (a situation which does occur in practice). This fallacy is the basis for most of the shit postdocs are forced to endure.

A couple of examples to illustrate how this is fucked up: (While these are towards the extreme end of what I’ve seen, milder versions of these and related situations abound.)
(1) Student of famous prof at Harvard produces very few papers during phd, and likewise during his subsequent postdoc at a good uni. The papers are published in routine journals and none of them have any impact (almost no citations). Nevertheless gets faculty job at Decent State U. after first postdoc. One of the other candidates for that job is a more senior postdoc (no it’s not me) with impressive research record, including a couple of single-author papers with 50+ citations and joint papers with 100+ cites. How could this guy lose out to the zero-researcher? Could it have anything to do with the fact that he had never spent time at illustrious universities, and that no famous people had anything personal at stake in whether he succeeded or not? Or that he came across as a bit haggard and stressed in seminars whereas Dr. zero was suaveness personified? Or that Decent State U. thought that hiring a (another) Harvard phd would make them “look better”. Anyway, here is the worst part: The senior postdoc was already a postdoc at that university, and for various reasons wanted to remain there. To be able to do this, he had to become the postdoc of the newly hired Dr. zero!! So he had to take time out from his own successful research program and spend it on doing what Dr. zero told him to (which ended up having just as little impact as everything else Dr. zero had done). And this because Dr. zero had been designated as having “made the grade” while the senior guy had not. No that’s not fucked up in the slightest, is it??

The second example was going to be the story of how I quit my glorified senior postdoc job a couple of weeks ago since I refuse to spend the best years of my research life being the serf of junior prof. Had-my-career-handed-to-me-on-a-plate (not a Dr. zero; this guy followed the more standard path of riding to a job on the coattails of famous people, and suffers from the (also very common) delusion that their wonderfulness rubbed off on him). But this comment has already gone on too long (sorry), so I’ll save that for another time.

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 10:05 AM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Glad you posted this clarification. I commented over at the drugmonkey with roughly the same point: that a postdoc doesn't have to do any of the things a junior PI does, but an excellent senior postdoc will indeed be doing them. Seems to be problem with everyone being on the same page about whether we're talking about all postdocs or specific good ones.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger BP said...

When I read PP's post commenting on your post, my first thought was that he doesn't really have a good grasp on how competitive academia has become, how variable post-doc experiences are, how powerless postdocs are nor how being a post-doc has changed over the years.

Grant-writing and management skills are far more important as a PI than as a post-doc, but you do use those skills as a post-doc and should be developing them.
For whatever its worth, I find your experience as chronicled here, to be pretty representative of a post-docs life.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Yup, I'm with Bill on that one. I'd be surprised to see if future success actually increases after a threshold number of postdoc years.

APP, I love these stories, because it illustrates an important point. My experiences are easily discounted if readers assume I'm the only one, or as PhysioProf likes to imply, that I'm really an outlier.

The truth is, I'm just a representative. All I can do is give a voice to the MANY of us who have been through the ringer and might seem, as you put it, a little haggard for having worked hard and honestly without the benefit of a ride on famous coat-tails.

I can understand going to a big-name school for college, maybe even for grad school (although that's debatable). What I have to wonder about is whether postdocs from Hahvahd and the like are really ANY better than postdocs from elsewhere. Seems to me the LAB makes all the difference, not the school. But it does seem as though 'postdoc at Harvard' generally results in more job offers (my totally unqualified impression).


What's your point. Read the archive.


This is what bugs me. We have NO IDEA how many 'good' postdocs there really are. It's very easy to generalize and say that 'most' postdocs are just glorified technicians, or 'most' postdocs are like junior PIs already. Neither is true, I think, but I can't actually back that up with numbers because we don't do a good job of tracking postdoc career trajectories. Which kind of gets back to Bill's point and one I've made over and over, which is that it's not clear that experience correlates with future success. At all. It's certainly not rewarded unless other criteria are also met (fame, money, etc.).


Thank you. It's worth a lot.

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Candid Engineer said...

Nice retort. I feel like PP was just looking for someone to bully today.

All in all, I see merits to both sides of the argument- however, your comments were taken out of context in the first place.

At 2:17 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

I know some PP-types, for whom the system has done what it should. I know a lot more people for whom things have not run as smoothly.

The idea that a PIs main tasks are management and grant writing seems odd. This might be true in a research institute or in a very fancy-schmancy university with a PI who doesn't teach undergrad or doesn't give a toss about teaching. In the vast majority of cases, the thing that lets you become a 'full' academic PI scientist is a continuing post. The vast majority of continuing posts are faculty posts. The vast majority of the work in most universities and situation is various kinds of teaching, mentoring and coaching, and various kinds of learning. Undergrad teaching SHOULD involve some element of mentoring - supporting students to take the step from being receivers of knowledge to being processors and creators of knowledge. Supervision of technical staff, grad students and post-docs should really be mentoring with a bit of teaching, the proportions varying depending on the needs of the individual.

Unless you buy into the myth that because you have a faculty post you have been selected as being intrinsically better than others, that hierachy must be maintained and your personal greatness must be acknowledged by your control over others, being a faculty member is a priviledge that like all priviledges brings responsibilities, particularly to those who still have hurdles to jump, to the little scholarly community you are building in your classroom and your laboratory and your group.

A postdoc is in many ways a peer, a peer who ISN'T playing the departmental politics game (which believe me is one of the less pleasant sides of the subject). A peer to learn from, learn with, and share your own knowledge with. Even if you disagree with them, or don't get on with them (work relationships do not have to be friendships or love affairs or family bonds).

People like the persona PP projects in his blog and comments (which I must admit I rarely read because the swearing gets old - it creates a 'hostile environment' in many ways, and I've generally found the adage that swearing excessively suggests a paucity of vocabulary to be true) are a minority, in terms of the combination of luck and talent and networking/personality that has got them to their position, in terms of their interactions with the system, and in terms of their attitudes - if a post-doc is basically doing a technician's job for extra pay then the PI is a fool and should have hired a technician.

People like you need to become PIs, both to find out what it IS like in this role (a lot less fun or free than I thought it would be, often), and to create groups where the kind of attitudes we talk about are real - and thereby influence the next generation, and hopefully diffuse some of these ideas throughout the system!

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Ms.PhD. The one small thing I hope to achieve by commenting here (besides letting off steam) is to help show that there is nothing unique or outlying about the postdoc experience you describe.

Btw, I agree about the worth of going to a big name school for college, and even more so for grad school. (Didn't know that at the time though, so I never took a shot at it.) It's to be expected that many of those who find faculty jobs will come from that background. What's not good though is when such people get jobs ahead of others who are more meritous as scientists, which seems to happen quite a bit in my field at least.

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like to think of it kind of like Dante Alighieri. Where postdoc-ing is kind of like when you've made it out of the depths of hell and you're either on the outer ring, or stuck in limbo, waiting. Will Jesus, and/or your well-connected advisor, come and finally take you to heaven (or tenure) someday? Don't have either? ... abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Haha. People like PP are vested in defending an utterly broken, retarded system because otherwise they lose their claim to being the most meritorious in a meritocracy. LOL.

At 12:07 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

People like PP are vested in defending an utterly broken, retarded system because otherwise they lose their claim to being the most meritorious in a meritocracy.

Right. Except that if people like PP really were so vested, they would spend all their time making the process as mysterious as possible so that nobody else could ever succeed.

Instead, PP and people like him relate their experiences in the hopes that it will help clear the fog. Testimonials from multiple individuals who were already PIs when reading PPs blogs and say "I wish I had a resource like this when I was a postdoc" and people who were postdocs last year and PIs right now who specifically reference PPs ideas as helpful tend to provide a counter example.

As is my continual refrain, those of us who happen to be PIs at the moment were once postdocs. In many cases disgruntled and frustrated and fearful that it was all coming to an end...just like you.

The fact that you dismiss the experiences of such people out of hand and persist in your whinging about the evil system is....pretty nuts.

At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long time lurker, first time commenter. I enjoy your blog a lot, and while I don't agree with everything you post about postdocs vs. PIs, I don't think you've missed the mark on this one.

I specifically chose to do a postdoc in a federal research lab in the physical sciences so I could avoid a lot of this nonsense. We are all soft money in this particular lab, so we are under immense funding pressure (overhead on our salaries is 200%). Even so, there is less of a climate of desperation because postdocs are considered and treated like colleagues and not underlings in the lab culture.

I did my postdoc, then joined the staff for a few years. This let me establish my own research agenda, and gave me a much better track record when I went to apply to faculty positions. This Fall, I will be moving to a TT position at a research university.

For you (or any of your readers out there) it might be worth considering a move to a government lab (but pick one that allows competitive grant submission). Postdoc positions are filled in much the same way as academic postdoc positions, and are sometimes advertised at national meetings and in society journals. In my experience, they are much less competitive than staff positions because they are short term.


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