Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Postdocs get pissed on by PIs

Lucky me, DrugMonkey not only decided to piss on my post, but also has a typo.

You make it too easy. Postdocs may not know much, but at least we can use a spellchecker.

I knew my comment about how "postdocs have the drawbacks of being a PI with none of the benefits" would draw fire, so I was surprised that no one commented on it per se at the time.

Instead I rated a whole rant! Yay, me.

Let me rephrase and address specifics of the complaints from DrugMonkey.

Points raised by DrugMonkey include:
1. Postdocs don't write grants.
2. Postdocs don't write papers.
3. Postdocs mooch off the lab infrastructure.
4. Postdocs have no clue what PIs really do.
5. Postdocs underestimate how much our PIs really help us.

Maybe I shouldn't say postdocs in general. Let's just say one postdoc, me. But I'm going to assume, perhaps with some audacity, that I'm not the only one out there. Maybe represent a small contingent of highly talented, hardworking postdocs who have gotten a raw deal.

So let me start by saying that while I might be really unusual, #1-3 don't apply to me personally.

1. I wrote a K grant, which is the same size, and, if you look at the statistics, more competitive than an R01. I've also helped revise an R01 from triage status to funded in the top 5%. So I have a very good idea of how much work writing an R01 really is.

2. I've written and published papers on my own. I wrote the cover letter, made all the figures, wrote all the text, and argued with the editors about the reviews. Everything. Admittedly, most postdocs don't do this, but I have.

3. I've been a sort of roaming gnome of a lab member for several years now, since my project is interdisciplinary I don't have all the equipment I need in any one place.

So I'm not really provided the sort of lab infrastructure most postdocs enjoy. This has been, if anything, a major drawback and has slowed me down a lot.

Note to taxpayers who want us to cure human diseases faster: I would have gotten more work done faster if I had gotten a faculty position years ago, since I could then design my lab to meet my own needs, instead of trying to cobble something together from begging and borrowing.

4. I've been mentoring people at all levels from high school through tenured professor on sabbatical. I've mentored these colleagues (and I treat everyone as a colleague, which is why I hate being treated like dirt) through technical problems, experimental design, project design, grantwriting, committee work, and so on and so forth.

So I have a pretty good idea what most PIs spend their days doing. Do I like it? Hell yeah. Am I good at it? Hell yeah.

Does anybody notice or care? Not if they can help it.

5. I have a pretty good idea of what a good PI can and should do. I'm also pretty certain that I've never really had one.

My current advisor is smart, but I don't get much feedback without a helluva lot of nagging. My advisor is either not in town, or doesn't have the door open, and not often seen walking through the lab (or because I'm frequently working elsewhere, not when I'm around).

PhysioProf, on DrugMonkey's post, comments that "the trainee has forgotten the numerous casual transient interactions through which the PI has guided the science and trained the trainee."

To which I have to say, I always remember the help that I get, because I get so little of it, and only when I ask.

But in a way you're making my case for me. If that's such an important part of being a PI- and I'd argue that it's the gravy part of the job- why do you make it sound so easy, casual, and transient?

I can say quite honestly that I get as much, if not more, helpful feedback from my other colleagues- fellow postdocs, students, collaborators- as I do from my PI.

So I have to wonder what's so great about the advisor-advisee relationship.

In the best of times, it's Buffy and Giles. Maybe some rough patches, but ultimately a relationship based on respect, mutual need, and a lot of hard work side-by-side in the trenches.

In the worst of times, it's anything but.

And you can say, as DrugMonkey did, "Scientific trainees that, for one reason or another, just don’t have what it takes either smarts or motivation-wise. When you get a whiner perspective like YFS, it is possible you have someone who isn’t going to make it."

Another great example of the Blame the Victim mentality.

In the best of circumstances, I'd like to think that most of us would be wildly successful.

Throw some roadblocks in the mix, and most of us would quit.

If you had half a clue what I've been through, you wouldn't be accusing me of not having the motivation. You'd be amazed I'm still standing.

And there's no doubt I have the scientific ability.

Still, you could argue that I'm lacking a certain kind of wisdom to navigate around the assholes, and you would be right. I'm definitely missing something about that.


At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not pissing on your post, no, nor on you. It is true that because I happen to stop by your blog and you represent the disgruntled postdoc position frequently and well, I might use your comments as jumping-off points now and again. This does not mean that I'm addressing your situation directly and specifically. Nor, necessarily are comments over at my blog. I think you will see that PhysioProf, for example, is careful to stipulate that indeed you may have a particularly bad PI situation. If you had accurately reflected my entire comment rather than pulling a selected quote it is obvious that I was expressing the difficulty of any outsider to determine who is a whining disgruntled trainee and who is justifiably pissed.

"Half a clue what I've been through". Here's a thought for you. Do you really not grasp that some of us, our spouses, close colleagues, friends, etc have already walked the mile in your shoes? That nearly all of us have been some version of disgruntled, screwed and exploited postdoc with dismal prospects of the promised land of independent career at times?

Okay, with respect to the ranting aspects of my post and following comments, blame the victim and "most of us would be wildly successful". Honestly I go back and forth on this and this is a productive avenue of discussion for many reasons. Not just for mentoring and individual career planning but for job searches, grant review, etc.

I take issue with "most of us". "many", sure. "many more than currently have the opportunity", sure. Any who read my stuff on NIH careerism will see that this is a consistent theme of mine in fact.

But I've been around a number of grad students, postdocs, research scientists across many disciplines over the years. A very sizable fraction just don't have what it takes. They don't. To pretend otherwise is fantasy. This observation in no way denies the existence of "roadblocks" which screen out the otherwise-competent scientists.

"Blame the Victim" is a nice dodge and excuse. Let us be clear. I am not one who assumes that if a trainee is not "making it" it is automatically because s/he is not worthy. On the other hand, I experience a LOT of trainee behavior that is beyond incompetent. It draws some ranting every once in a while, yes. But this person is not a "victim", they are at the least in the wrong career.

What this comes down to, in my view, is trying to determine the scope of the legitimate problem, the impact on science and careers and therefore to design fixes for the problem. We will not get there by assuming all who enter grad school deserve a faculty job. Nor will we get there by assuming "the system works" and that those who make it are by definition deserving and those who don't, not deserving.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger Kate said...

The funny thing is, your experience isn't that out of the ordinary, Ms.PhD. In my field, all postdocs write grants, write and publish papers, and contribute money to lab resources. And I suspect that since they do those things, they have a pretty good idea what it's like to be a PI. DrugMonkey seems a bit out of touch.

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

drugmonkey is a g-damn motherless prick of a PI who obviously looks down at his/her postdocs with complete and utter condescension. From this grad students perspective, PIs do have something to offer - money (sometimes) and equipment (and not much of that) - but everything else, I've been there.

I've written two papers and a review basically by myself, because in my lab, the PI doesn't write paper. He revises papers, but most (all?) of the revisions need to be edited back out because they state things that aren't true, reference papers that don't exist, or misconstrue the data. The postdocs and other students are the ones who provide useful help with revisions! As for experiments, I will reluctantly concede that I have occasionally heard a decent idea pass his lips that I have not previously thought of... but the best experiment ever suggested to me in a lab meeting was from a postdoc who doesn't even work on anything similar to what I do. Also, I've published an entire highly-rated paper on an idea that my boss told another grad student was worthless data and not worth pursuing, and that I had to chase him down a hallway to get permission to spend a little bit of money on.

So drugmonkey has to spend time writing grants, Big Fraking Deal. It seems most of the time that my PI is either in meetings or on a plane or "writing grants". And you know, he doesn't put in 12+ hour days with no weekends slaving away. .. and while his postdocs slave away, he's no doubt at home with his family and a dry martini. So f**k drugmonkey and his condescension.

At 6:19 PM, Blogger Southern Grad Girl said...

I don't think you're far off from the truth. Perhaps there are different types of postdocs. One type who just uses a postdoc as a job after grad school and a second who is highly interested in the process of a traditional academic career. (Of course, there are people in the middle, but they're not so helpful for illustration purposes.) I've seen postdocs who are just glorified techs and ones are more like high schoolers...they can think for themselves, but have to check with the boss before they're brave enough to do something. Then there are postdocs like you, and like my boss. He also got a K grant, even wrote an R01 while a postdoc in preparation for his faculty position. He brought his own projects, even sat in on committees. He was, I think, doing the work of a PI without any of the recognition. And while that may not be every case, or even welcome in every case, it certainly isn't true (like DM says) that postdocs overestimate themselves. Sometimes they just do excellent work without anyone recognizing it as such.

At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several points:

I (for one) didn't reply to your post about how postdocs are the PIs without all the benefits because I fully agree with this statement, and it's not totally controversial or surprising. I have nothing to add.

As to the statement by drug monkey that "postdocs overestimate their contributions", well, I am a PI - but I remember what it used to be like when I was a postdoc, and I beg to differ. I knew *EXACTLY* how much I contributed because 90% of contributions to my first-author papers were, well, mine! I think many PIs overestimate their contributions - even though it varies by field.

I wrote ALL of my papers, including papers as a grad student. So it's surprising to me that some postdocs don't write their own papers. In my field PIs do some editing, if at all.

Junior PIs have to pull a lot more weight - they can't afford to leave it all to the postdocs, their tenure is on the line. But senior PIs definitely overestimate their contributions - and this is true simply because they typically have no idea how many hours their postdocs or students put in. If you have a post-tenure PI who puts in more hours (lab+writing+teaching -everything) than any of his postdocs, well, maybe then. But in most cases postdocs don't overestimate their contributions - saying they do is like kicking a guy in the balls and then claim that YOU know better than the guy whether it hurts or not.

However, I have to say this - you got to stop complaining and get that faculty position. As they say - if you are so smart, how come you aren't rich?

Thousands of postdocs get faculty jobs in your field - and a high fraction of them are women, so don't blame ALL OF IT on sexism.

I guess my comment is - if you are so good at doing research and publishing and writing grants, how come you are the only one who knows it?

There is a lot to complain about postdoc life, without making it sound as if you are way better than anyone else, including your PIs.

These are two totally different statements: 1. I work harder than my PI
2. I am smarter than my PI, and it's a grand conspiracy that made him (and thousands others every year) a PI, while I am struggling on the job market.

Sorry to be so blunt - but drugmonkey is wrong on some things, but also correct on others.

At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL! Smackdown.

Let me take a guess... Drugmonkey is a white male, in his 40's, in a research scientist or professor position who likes to listen to the sound of his own voice, especially when it's in an echo chamber. I'm sure your employees love you, Drugmonkey. They probably cut and paste your head onto animals.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thank you, DrugMonkey, for clarifying. But the speculation on your blog really did read as implying that I'm an example of the loser type of postdoc simply because I complain a lot. Sorry for being defensive! But apparently I'm not the only person who read it that way.

I agree that there are many students and postdocs who aren't made of the right stuff for this business. I wonder whether we shouldn't do them a favor by discouraging them earlier? Why wait until we're postdocs to tell us we suck? Oh wait- because we're supposed to be cheap slave labor in the meantime.

Seriously though, I think there are a lot of sheep who wander into academia... and then wander along until they hit a wall.

The wall has an interesting effect on the sheep.

Some leave. Others just kind of camp out in that "Who moved my cheese?" classic way.

I'm the kind of postdoc who was lucky enough to have an honest faculty member tell me in grad school that you have to be willing to break down the wall with your forehead.

But one of the things I struggle with a lot is whether in putting up walls to keep out the sheep, we're also losing a lot of postdocs- especially women- who are just tired of the headache. And whether I might be one of them.

To the person who asked if I'm so good, how come I don't have a job yet, well, if you've been reading my blog you know it's always a little more complicated than that. Timing is always a factor.

The complete lack of mentoring, and the frequent presence of anti-mentoring, have led me to do some things the long way. Because, you know, I'm just learning by trial and error. In the absence of reliable guidance, you just gotta do the experiment.

So yeah, if all it took were hard work and a good head on your shoulders, we'd all have jobs.

A lot of this blog is about trying to figure out what the other ingredients are. Being sufficiently social with the right people is definitely one of them.

FYI, the statement that "thousands" of postdocs get jobs in field is way off base. About 3 orders of magnitude off base. Or were you trying to be hyperbolic on purpose?

I can name maybe 10 people in my field who got jobs this year.

Sadly, almost all the women I know who got jobs were part of a couple hire. In several of those (and maybe even all of them?) the husband was actively recruited and the wife got a spousal interview. I won't be getting one of those, so I have to ask what my chances really are.

And why.

As Am I a woman scientist? states eloquently in her profile:"if you ever forget that you’re a woman, someone will always be around to remind you."

Which reminds me, I need to add her to my blogroll.

To everyone else, thanks for chiming in.

At 6:48 AM, Blogger Mad Hatter said...

I just want to comment on a few things that were said in this discussion.

First, I'm a bit surprised that some of you view writing grants and your own papers as a negative. Like "anonymous", I've written all of my own papers starting from grad school, with my PI doing some editing. I wouldn't have it any other way--if I designed the experiments and did the work, then I am the most qualified person to write the papers. I see it as an opportunity to take ownership of the work and to present it in the way I think is best. And I've learned a lot from it. I think control freak PIs who refuse to let their trainees write their own papers do them a disservice.

As for grants, almost every postdoc in every lab I've ever worked in has written them. It's good to learn how to write grants before you're in a situation where failing to get one means you don't get tenure and have to shut down your lab. Trust me, you don't want the first grant you ever write to be an R01. I know postdocs who didn't write grants who were asked during faculty position interviews why they didn't have any. In my field, having gotten a grant as a postdoc is a huge plus in getting a tenure-track position because it demonstrates prior funding success.

On mentoring: different PIs have different mentoring styles. Granted, some are just bad mentors who don't care. But some are deliberately hands-off because they feel that's the best way to train a postdoc to become independent. After all, the chair of your department isn't going to hold your hand once you're a PI. Ms. PhD said "in the absence of reliable guidance, you just gotta do the experiment." Even the most well-intentioned PI/mentor can't predict the outcome of experiments. Frankly, I'd rather have the autonomy to direct my own project than to have a PI "guide" all my experiments.

On getting jobs: the job market for tenure-track positions is dismal right now. Some institutions have hiring freezes, presumably because they want to preserve their funds to help float the faculty they already have if these faculty can't get their grants renewed. Having said that, everyone I personally know who has applied for tenure-track positions in the last three years has gotten one, and none of them were the super-postdoc type with 10 Science/Nature papers. These included women, some of whom were part of a couple hire and some were not. Two of the women in couple hires were the stronger applicant and the actively recruited half of the pair.

At the risk of getting flamed, I will say one more thing. I think the pervasive negativity and overt hostility in your posts detracts from the insights you have to offer. There are a lot of frustrations in academia, and I certainly don't know what you, in particular, have been through. I'm not advocating a pollyanna approach, and obviously you have every right to express yourself as you wish on your own blog. But the vitriol does give the impression that you are merely a chronic malcontent, which decreases your credibility and can result in people dismissing the real problems with academia underlying your complaints.

At 8:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone, thanks for playing. we only get anywhere by discussion. fascinating that much like what Zuska seems to experience, many of the chime-ins serve only to further illustrate the point. in this case that while yes, some postdocs do in fact function as miniPIs, many other hardworking and long-suffering postdocs still don't really understand the PIs job.

Kate and anon#1, Sure, you write your own papers here and submit a K or help with the R01 submissions there. Fine. Do you do it ALL and the same time? Write the other papers and reviews, review the grants, edit journals, write the animal protocols, keep up with the teaching obligations, make bloody SURE the grant money is coming in, fight off the institution, schmooze the right colleagues and, yes, get actual work done during those plane flights when your lab thinks you are sipping martinis? And this is far from a complete list. Walk the mile people, walk the mile.

Ms. PhD, thanks for backing up a step and seeing that this is productive discussion, not an attack.

LOL! Smackdown Anon- not even close, ROFL.

I Am a PI Anon- almost by definition, given that you made it, you were one of those hard working postdocs. in the retrospective analysis this makes you far from typical.

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anti-mentoring. That's a good one. I could never figure out the opposite of mentoring. Now I have it.

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think drugmonkey has too much time on his/her hands. And to think that all the answers to the most complicated questions and issues reside in that blog!

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple comments.

First, (almost) EVERYONE (almost) ALWAYS OVER-REPRESENTS THEIR OWN CONTRIBUTIONS. Otherwise you just get steamrolled repeatedly. I am convinced that this is a learned behavior. I certainly do this now after getting absolutely no credit for my work initiating studies in grad school that got published in among other places Angewandte Chem and PNAS. I'm not proud about it, but it is a 'will to power' kind of thing. If you don't make it clear that the work wouldn't have gotten done without your contribution (whether you're a tech, grad student, postdoc, PI, dean, CEO or POTUS) then you're just a cog. Which of course is what everyone above you in the pyramid wants you to believe. So that then you don't fight so hard to preserve the credit you deserve - like authorship, coPI on a grant, department chair, member on a scientific advisory board, whatever.

Second, most people aren't cut out to run their own ship, and especially not in the top tier. At least not right out of the gate. There is a myth that people from the MD training paradigm, and especially the MD/PhD paradigm and double especially those who specialize in (bio-applied) engineering don't need to do even a single year of postdoc to get a faculty position. Actually, it's not a myth right now. But it will become a myth. Why? Because these new departments are full of junior people who haven't published a whit since 2003. In fact from my observations, the whole MD/PhD training paradigm is a total scam. You typically get your med school paid for, you often don't need to do either a residency or a postdoc and you can get a job right away. And then it is the rare individual who actually uses both degrees in any meaningful way. Discrepancies in what it takes to be a viable candidate across disciplines that are in large measure identical are a big part of my personal frustration.

Third, the more you make it clear you want something, the more difficult the powers that be will make it for you to obtain it. People who appear indifferent or downright negative about pursuing an academic career are often encouraged to continue. And their positions are often incentivized, "do this little bit of work and you can be co-first author", "here's a whole project you can write a K-series application on along with my last R01 from which you can just cut and paste." The game sucks.

Fourth, if you really have good insight, people above you will resent you. Because then it is true that you are indispensible for moving knowledge forward. There is a myth that that responsibility belongs to an elite club and they only have so many keys to the executive washroom.

Fifth, even good mentors have their shortcomings - when you reach diminishing returns or they begin sabotaging your work/self-confidence/grant applications. Maybe the very best mentors don't do this, but in my experience as long as someone is clearly the boss and has total control of your money, there will be friction. And that friction won't lessen over time.

Sixth, as my dad used to say, "you become an expert when you're fifty miles from home." In other words, people who know you judge you differently. Especially those people who were around when you were in a trainee capacity. Then they will always look at you as a trainee and not a full-fledged independent colleague.

So, to sum up. You need an exit strategy. At every level. Otherwise you will be miserable because you will feel trapped.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger chall said...

well, I must say that if you don't write your own papers as a postdoc you will most probably never write a paper or become a PI...

Where I come from post docs write their own papers with input and discussions with thier PI. (or at least some critisism.)

The lab infrastructure and the rest, still not really understanding how 'good' I am off as a post doc compared to a PI with his/her own funding and responsibility (not to mention actual respect from their peers).

When it comes to feed back I must admit that my fellow post docs do know more about techs to use etc than my PI, although I fully agree that he knows lots about other stuff and give me input.

I guess it it like AIAWS says, just a reminder that we need to remember and that it is ok to voice an opinion even though some people disagree.

thanks for a good blog with interesting thoughts! It is nice to know that there are several other post docs with thoughts regarding this.

At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize this is a very old post but I just stumbled on this blog and the link to the drugmonkey post and read them out of curiosity and amusement.

YFS, you are more gracious to the drugmonkey than he deserves. He definitely accused you of being a whiner/loser in his post. otherwise why would he have used you as an example. Yet when you took offense and confronted him on it now on your blog he back peddled and "oh that is not what I meant"...if you're gonna write negative things about specific people then at least take responsibility for what you say, sheesh. and drugmonkey if you think YFS is a whiner or loser why do you even read this blog? (I guess this shows that PIs have a lot of idle time on their hands)

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, so I also completely disagree with DM. I am a postdoc, and I write my own grants, bring in projects with external collaborators all by myself, sit on committees, write all my own papers (including papers with collaborators) by myself, argue with editors, argue with collaborators (very big shot profs in some cases) and do more or less everything else a PI does including admin and training everyone from PhDs to visiting profs. All I don't do is teach undergrads. So in a way, my current position is equivalent to being a research professor at a national lab or pure research institution. But with a lousy salary and no recognition for my effort. I have seen some of the postdocs DM is talking about which really do not make the cut but to put all postdocs in this category is completely unfair. I also know many postdocs without whom the PIs group would fall apart (some of which have their effort recognized by PI others not). I empathize with this post completely.

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DM: to paraphrase your post:

Kate and anon#1, Sure, you write your own papers here and submit a K or help with the R01 submissions there. Fine. Do you do it ALL and the same time? Write the other papers and reviews, review the grants, edit journals, write the animal protocols, keep up with the teaching obligations, make bloody SURE the grant money is coming in, fight off the institution, schmooze the right colleagues and, yes, get actual work done during those plane flights when your lab thinks you are sipping martinis? And this is far from a complete list. Walk the mile people, walk the mile.

I am currently doing everything on that list, apart from having to worry about the money coming in and teach undergrads (and trust me, I am really thankful). So at the moment I have all the responsibilities of a postdoc plus most of the responsibilities of a PI. The PI doesn't have to do all that AND do the actual research. I have to do all of the above apart from having all the funding ride on me and teach (I work 12 hours a day on weekdays and min 6 on weekends just to keep up with all the papers, reviews, emails to collaborators, committees I sit on, grants I have to review, papers I have to review, etc) and I am a postdoc. And yet I can't get a faculty position, mostly because most advertised posts are insider jobs. As I mentioned in my previous post above, I agree that your description would fit most postdocs. But some of us do stand out of the pack and we are still stuck against a brick wall even when as in my case we have Nobel Prize winners writing letters of reference for us. The job market is screwed up. Oh, and by the way, YFS: I am also female.

At 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another dirty little secret: once you get your own lab, you will be competing with your previous PI for the very same (and ever shrinking) pool of grant money. Make the conclusions.


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