Saturday, November 29, 2008

Barriers to publication = barriers to getting hired.

I commented on this post over at Drugmonkey regarding the Research Plan part of job applications.

I can understand why, in a job application, you should have publications to demonstrate your experience, contributions, etc.

However, the most interesting part of this post to me was the mention that if your future research plans are not already supported by PUBLICATIONS, no one will look at you seriously.

I find this kind of bizarre for two major reasons, so I figured hey, that's why I have a blog. To continue to ask WHY?????

1. The Research Plan is supposed to be sort of like your first grant application.

  • Rationale: In an actual grant application, you get to show preliminary data, much of which is not published.
  • Results: True or false? I think this is true, but only for first-time applications. For renewals, yes, your "progress and preliminary results" should be (almost all) published already.
  • Possible pitfalls: Does it make sense, then, to require that all the preliminary data for a job application be published? Isn't this more of the same hypocrazy we see throughout science? The complete lack of consistency and transparency?

2. As Comrade PhysioProf wrote (and I'm paraphrasing here), if you can't publish as a postdoc, you can't publish as a PI.

This is false logic.

So this got me thinking, maybe I need to spell out why it's so much harder to publish as a postdoc.

1. Sucky reviews.

There are lots of variables that go into this issue. Which journal you choose is a major one.

I think a lot of us can agree that the quality of reviews depends somewhat on the journal, and you can be ridiculously demanding if the paper was submitted to a Top Tier Journal.

Therefore, some people will tell you that the quality of the reviews goes DOWN as the reputation of the journal goes UP.

Addressing sucky reviews? You've got two choices. a) Do the ridiculous things they ask or b) go somewhere else. If you're lucky and you have an argumentative PI, you might argue your way out of some of the ridiculous things, but nobody can argue their way out of all of them.

2. The insistence on Top Tier papers to get a job

If we think that #1 is worse for top tier journals, and there's more pressure to publish in a top tier journal as a postdoc, then you're setting yourself up for a world of hurt.

I know plenty of PIs who NEVER AGAIN published in a top tier journal after they got hired as faculty, and yet they continue to receive RO1s.

So the top tier publication rule is really more important, I think (?), for getting a job than for getting funding. Publishing early and often is more important for funding.

Publishing early and often in anything other than a top-tier journal? Is much, much easier.

3. Your PI is the corresponding author, not you.

Yeah, you know, and I know it. This person is supposed to be your biggest help, but not always. And they're often my biggest hurdle.

My PI is busy. Is traveling. Is sexist. Is procrastinating. Expects me to be a mind-reader. Is not all that invested in seeing my succeed. Might actually prefer not to have me as a future competitor (!).

And so on and so forth.

Will you EVER have someone like this standing in your way again, once you are a faculty member?

Not really, not for publishing, not this directly.

So I can't really see how dealing with a PI as a postdoc really translates directly into your future publication prospects.

4. Your competitors (aka our corrupt anonymous "peer review" system).

Okay, so this will be a problem again and always, so long as we have this "system."

It isn't any better as a postdoc than as a PI, but it might actually be worse.

Case in point: I know for a fact that there are lots of people who hate, and/or compete with, my PI.

Most of these people don't know who I am, and they don't care.

Whose name do you think draws more fire when we submit a paper together?

Will I have this problem later, when I'm no longer directly associated with this PI? Probably not. At least, not for a while (until I've built up my own well-earned hatred).


So, kids, what did we learn today? That getting a job depends on illogical bullshit spouted by review committees?

Oh wait, we knew that already.


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

Before I apply for jobs, my plan is to have two first author pubs in press that showcase the techniques I will use in a position. I don't really care if they are in top-tier journals. That's serendipity.

I think evidence of grant-writing ability might be more important. I've gotten pre and postdoc NRSAs and am working with my NIH PO to submit an attractive (fundable) K99.

Fortunately my PI sees it as his responsibility to get his postdocs jobs. He's of the "I'm already famous enough" sort, and I think these are the best type to have as advisors/cronies. He also inbreeds like a mofo. I guess I'm sorry to say I've embraced the system as it is.

From our lab, having NRSAs and a couple of pubs (in journals you've never heard of) have led to TT positions for postdocs in the past. We currently have three K99 awardees in our relatively small department, so we've been pretty successful here as well. Obviously the K99 takes care of a lot of your problems if you can get one.

At this point, though, there's too little money and too much stress on the whole system, which causes everyone to take a dump on everyone else. And that's whether you're talking grants, manuscripts, or positions. And the cronyism gets even worse.

At 11:37 PM, Blogger Phagenista said...

Another difference between my corner of biology and yours is that I was the corresponding author on all my journal publications from my PhD and postdoc (My PhD advisor was the corresponding author on two book chapters we wrote together because of the time books gestate before publication. This was at my request, and I did all the tasks of the corresponding author.)

My PI's have pushed for this arrangement because...
1. it removes work from their to-do lists
2. it helps the student become better known [it's not like people seeing the author list won't know whose lab I was in at the time]
and, perhaps the real reason...
3. Their PIs forced them to be corresponding authors on their thesis work.

I should mention that in the adjacent corner of biology to mine, it's common for graduate students and postdocs to publish single-authored papers on work that was financially supported by the PI, but to which the PI didn't have any substantial intellectual contribution.

But your #1, #2 and #4 all apply in spades to my corner of biology. And I think there's a huge difference between writing and publishing one's own papers and those with someone to whom you must be deferential.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger quietandsmalladventures said...

good post, as a grad student i've come across the corrupt reviews (aka competitors), but the others are things i need to watch out for in the future... thanks for this "landmine" map post, i'm going to have to file it under very useful.

At 6:50 PM, Blogger CookingWithSolvents said...

It is 100% true that publishing post-doc work is directly correlated to success in securing a faculty position.

Getting sh*t done(TM) is one thing that absolutely, positively, MUST be quality of/priority #1 on any new faculty list. Now, is publishing as a post-doc predictive? I don't know. However, with 200+ applicants you sure can cull the applicants with that as a criteria and end up with a fantastic list of quality people.

A start-up package is a HUGE investment. That makes the process somewhat risk-adverse. I don't blame "them" and I'm shocked that people find stuff like 'I have to publish a lot to get a faculty position.' a big surprise.

I don't have any real advice for dealing with hostile reviewers except that conferences can do wonders. In some cases being "the postdoc with a new thing" in the lab that "we traditionally hate" can work for you.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Pain Man,

Sounds like a well-connected lab.


Sounds like a better corner of biology than mine. I WISH our PIs were less competitive control freaks who would TEACH us how to be the corresponding authors and let us take some, uh, credit for our work. But that's not how the field is.

I completely agree that it makes sense in light of the workload and training. But as I've said before, most scientists don't want to break the cycle.


Glad it seems helpful. Some days I feel like it's the only useful thing I do, if a blog post helps one person that's more than I can say for anything else I've done all week..


First, disagree. I know a few people who got jobs in the last couple of years based on the mere ASSUMPTION of publication in a top journal. Their papers were not actually in press yet when they got the offers. So why is it okay for some and not for others? Politics, politics, politics.

Second, also disagree. I'm reading plenty of blogs from PIs complaining that there are no quality people. And yet, here they are culling people like me from the list because I don't have enough pubs. Do I think that makes any sense? NO. I think there are plenty of high quality people JUST LIKE ME who aren't getting a chance to show what we're worth (and props to Drugmonkey for pointing that out to PhysioProf on the original blog post I mentioned).

The only reason I approved your comment was your suggestion that conferences can sometimes help with hostile reviewers. I think that's a good point so I thank you for making it.

I think your last sentence makes no sense whatsoever. Perhaps you'd like to clarify?

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

I for one have a lot more respect for the new PI's who succeeded despite having had to deal with a lot more sh!t when they were postdocs such as racial and/or gender discrimination and who did not have the help of their own advisor or the reputation of their lab to fall back on. I have a feeling that such people who succeed in spite of this, are extremely rare.

And that's a big problem in academia which is that your career can be made or broken based on things completely unrelated to the quality of your work and productivity. I'm not talking about the difference between getting a raise or a bigger raise, I'm talking entire careers hanging on intangible and unquantifiable or undocumented things like the how much your postdoc advisor feels like helping you.

I was turned down for a position and flatly told I "wasn't good enough". That's fine, I certainly admit there's lots of people who are better than me. But some months later I found out who got hired instead. the guy had less than half the publications I did (and his publications were in lower impact journals and were hardly cited whereas mine are pretty well cited), had almost no awards to his name (whereas I have several awards for scientific achievement), and had never even TRIED for grant funding, whereas I have brought in grant funding before. Between the two of us how can he be considered better qualified than me by any measure?? ...Insiders then admitted to me that it's because this guy is from a big name lab (which I always knew anyway) and his famous postdoc advisor pulled some heavy strings to get him the job. My own postdoc advisor would never do anything even remotely like that, in fact I'm lucky to even be given a desk in his lab.

I realize that sh!t like this happens everywhere not just academia or science. But the problem is that in academia there are far fewer job openings available than in other professions so the impact is far greater.


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