Thursday, June 19, 2008

Read my lips. Who's in charge.

A comment on my last post regarding whether or not postdocs should be presenting their own work brings up a topic I've written about before, but which I think is important enough to keep repeating.

I went to a talk the other day where an older (though maybe only 60-ish!) guy presented the work of two of his postdocs (out of how many in his lab, I don't know).

In the talk, he did something I've only rarely seen PIs do: pointing out that one of the postdocs was present and available to answer questions "since he knows the work better than I do". I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad that he said that. Maybe a little of both.

And since then (and the comment on my last post about who would you rather see present the work, the PI or the postdoc) I've been thinking about this quite a bit.

In one way, yes the more experienced PIs can often be better speakers because they don't get stage fright, and they've given these talks hundreds of times. They have a certain amount of authority. You get a polished product, maybe a little more historical perspective (I'll come back to that), and maybe another benefit: 1 PI can talk about 2 or more projects in a single talk. And it's perfectly acceptable, maybe even expected, for them to do so.

On the other hand, you can't ask them anything technical, usually they don't know the answer. I actually saw a guy do this at a talk once, with what I think was deliberate aim: he asked several technically challenging questions in quick succession, and the PI speaker was basically stunned into silence. I was hysterical with silent laughter.

And there is this other aspect that most PIs don't want to admit: a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI. Admittedly, junior PIs don't get to give talks as often as senior PIs, but they give talks more often than postdocs.

The point of this comparison is that in at least some (!) cases the senior postdoc proposed the project, did the project, and has lots of ideas for where her project will go next, since it is presumably the subject of her future grants and lab studies. Senior PI guy might not know those things, and might not, in some cases, really appreciate the importance and implications of the work that has already been done.

In general I was thinking about this because I was noticing once again how it seems like the postdocs and grad students are actually driving the research behind the scenes, and the PIs are really just figureheads. They're not exactly puppets, but in a way they could be. In some labs they are.

The historical perspective aspect is an important one, and I can't emphasize enough how much it annoys me when a grad student or postdoc is asked a question about the history of their own field and can't answer it.

The other day I asked a question like this and the speaker (a postdoc) looked at me and said very dismissively, "That's very philosophical" and continued on without even attempting to answer. Sheesh! I actually know a little more about her field than she might realize. I know she could have answered my question succinctly, in just 1 sentence that conveyed the traditional thinking as well as her personal take on it.

Instead, I am left to conclude that she hasn't read the classic papers in her field (even though I have!). Which made me wonder if she's not one of these glorified technician types that some PI commenters are always complaining about (?).

I'll agree, I don't want to see that kind of postdoc presenting talks. I'd take a senior PI over that sort of person any day. But I think most PIs know that, and that's why they don't generally give their talk slots away to their postdocs.

Having said that, sometimes I'd rather hear one, complete story from an articulate postdoc than a bunch of snippets from a breezy world-traveling PI who can't answer questions effectively. I always feel sorry for the postdocs who did the work, because I know the talk rarely gives them the credit they deserve.

Will I give talks away to my postdocs? Sure, when they're good speakers and have a good story to tell. They might not come into the lab that way, but I'll make sure they gain those skills quickly and practice them sufficiently before they leave.

I like to travel, but I already know that most PIs are invited to more meetings than they can possibly attend in a year, and their labs suffer when they're constantly out of town. A handful of meetings a year is enough! I'd much rather send my postdocs to some of them. To me, that's a win-win.

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At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a postdoc is such a shitty position. it's not as luxurious as a PI's. the PI gets all the glory. which is why every postdoc wants to become a PI. it kind of sounds like you resent PI's, but the problem lies in that you aren't one yet. don't take it out on them, they already paid their dues. they are training people like you (well, supposed to be anyway) so that the next generation of PIs can be even better. i look up to PI's and i'm looking forward to the day i get to join their ranks.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Yes, I do resent PIs who aren't training people and don't want to recognize that the system is broken and needs a major renovation.

Some do know and want to help change it. Some know it needs to change but don't know what to do. Others know it needs to change but have no intention of helping.

The ones that drive me nuts are the ones who think everything is hunky-dory. Lately I am hearing a lot of PIs saying that the system works fine when there's enough funding.

That's just idiotic.

We need a system that trains people and regulates the number of people vs. jobs according to the funding level.

It's really that simple.

Mentoring, for example, does not depend on funding. Sure you could argue they're busy writing more grants so PIs have less time for us when funding is low. But actually mentoring doesn't cost anything other than time.

Letting people work until they are 80+ years old, just because we're too nice to tell them to go home and play golf, does not depend on funding. If anything, it should be the first thing to change when there's not enough funding.

It's like a bad joke. If the old guys stick around while all the young scientists quit, what do you have in 10 years?

Dead science.

At 2:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And there is this other aspect that most PIs don't want to admit: a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI."

Exactly. In principle postdocs are supposed to be trainees, who go on to become PIs/faculty once they are "fully trained". Of course, the reality is completely different. Usually there is very little difference between the level of accomplishments and knowledge of senior postdocs and junior faculty. It is farcical how academia tries to pretend that there is some great divide between them. (We all know that success in finding a faculty job involves things that have nothing to do with objective measures of academic merit.)

At 6:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was starting out as a PI, one of my previous advisors (who was a good mentor) explicitly told me not to have postdocs give my invited talks. He said that they're inviting me, not inviting someone else (such as the postdoc). He said it would be rude to turn down the invitation and give it to someone else. Alternatively, if I can't do it, they might want to invite someone else: it's their choice, not my choice. Although, I can (and do) make suggestions that if I can't be there, someone else from my group might work out.

In a few cases, I've known of situations where the PI couldn't make it to the conference at the last minute and someone else from their lab group would fill in. I once got to go to a conference in France for that reason, when I was a grad student, and my PI couldn't go.

The flip side of this: I've gotten far enough in my career that I'm occasionally responsible for inviting speakers to conferences. And I try to emphasize young people and postdoctoral fellows when possible.

But, the other flip side of this: people often try to attend talks by very famous professors. (This has been discussed previously on this blog, I think I remember.) So sometimes by inviting a famous PI, it gives them the opportunity to promote the work of the people in their group. As was pointed out in the original post, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't.

Anyway, I'm not sure what the best answer is. That's hilarious when the person giving the talk can't answer simple technical questions about the work!

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's scary. In physics, PIs generally give the invited "review" talks they have given a million times before basically summarizing the field. Otherwise talks are given by the main driver behind a project all the way down to the grad student level. Also, the main driver is traditionally the first author and the PI is traditionally the last author. Undergraduates usually always do posters instead.

At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is one way the system is broken. Saddling a training position with the expectations of a production position. That we are judged by papers published rewards those that game the system. Here's how you do it: Find a lab with a working project. Step into working project. Publish. Job after 2 years in postdoc. Is this person really more qualified than one who spends the first two years (or more) just setting up the experimental system? I think not, but that's how it goes. This approach also encourages "safe" science, which is contrary to all the talk about encouraging "risky" science we hear from Keith Yamamoto and his committees at the NIH.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Will I give talks away to my postdocs? Sure, when they're good speakers and have a good story to tell. They might not come into the lab that way, but I'll make sure they gain those skills quickly and practice them sufficiently before they leave."

No offense, but I find this almost impossible to believe. I think in an ideal world, you'd LIKE to do this, but in reality you are going to be too busy scrambling to get funding and advance your own agenda, to care that much about how well your postdocs speak. Nor will you give up your own glory for theirs. Again, I know you'd like to think things will be this way, but I think reality will get in the way of this.

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


That must be why I always feel like doing a poster as a postdoc is a little bit degrading!

Anon 1:33,

How long have you been reading this blog?

Of course it depends on where you are in your career, and at the beginning it's unlikely I'll have any postdocs for a while, much less senior ones who are ready to present their work at meetings.

And of course I will do what other commenters have pointed out, which is to suggest to the meeting organizers that one of my postdocs has great work and gives a great talk and should speak in my place if that's okay. Ultimately it's always up to the organizers.

But my 'glory', such as it might hypothetically be, will ALL depend on how happy and productive and successful my postdocs are.

So it's not about my glory vs. theirs. At all.

I don't know where you're coming from, maybe you're a PI who had good intentions yourself but found it hard to manage. Or maybe you're a postdoc with one of these otherwise well-intentioned young PIs.

I think it's all about priorities. If being a PI means I have to be that kind of PI, no thanks. I don't want to be a PI so badly that I'm going to exploit people to succeed.

Nor to I believe that's the only successful way to be.


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