Scientific Careerism 101: Yes, grad students and postdocs it IS your fault

Feb 07 2008 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring

The inestimable Dr. Free-Ride has started a series (Part 1) on scientific careerism in which she is pondering the project of being a grownup scientist. Naturally, YHN likes. However, the first post and teaser title for the second strikes a certain, er, tone:

Grown-up chemists had a huge body of unwritten knowledge to draw upon, it seemed. But hardly any of it seemed to be the focus of our graduate training -- at least, not explicitly.

Coming up: Why don't most advisors talk about the things grad students most want to learn from them?

Coming up below the fold: Why are graduate students and postdocs so aggressively clueless about their careers?


This is about the point in a post where I'd normally link to some disgruntled postdoc blog or another for evidence. I think this issue is mostly self-evident so I'll avoid starting in on some poor blogger. If you really want to know, you can go through the blogroll which is rich in disgruntle-blogs.
Why don't trainees understand that this is a job? Probably the hardest thing to get across to trainees is that science careers are not a meritocracy of how good your "hands" are, how smart you are, how good actual results are, etc. It is a meritocracy at how good you are at a science career! Meaning that all of these aspects are necessary but you also need to treat your career like.....a career. And science careers require all the politics, maneuvering, head's up decision making and self-promoting that other careers require. Being "good at science" is not good enough. This is something that you should have learned in late high school when you were considering what your career might be and therefore what college you should attend (if at all). And you did learn this. So why be in a state of intentional denial once you get to graduate school?
And why, oh why, are they so arrogantly "above it all"? Commenter bayman at AinE&S opines:

"If I wanted to take courses called things like "Networking 101" or "How to Get the Most Out of Your Collaborations" I would've have gone to business school instead. More importantly, I think science as a discipline would be ruined if we started teaching these sorts of things in a structured manner."

This illustrates the idiotic "above the fray" attitude that at root ties back to a notion that science careers are inherently different. They are, but not as much as most people assume. The bayman wants to learn it all on his own. It is possible and most of us are living proof...but still. Comments to this blog suggest that many junior faculty are quite happy to get any help they can as they transition and regret not learning more of this earlier in training.
Why don't trainees listen to what their PI is saying? Learning is not a process of spoon feeding after you leave the undergraduate environment. One of the comments over at AinE&S has the call:

My grad school adviser used to drive us nuts by coming into the lab and saying things like "I haven't heard back from this grant proposal and I can't decide whether to call the program officer. What are your thoughts?" Most of us looked at him like he was daft. He's the boss, shouldn't he know?
Sometime around my fourth year I realized that--DUH--he knew perfectly well what to do, he was just trying to expose us to the decision making process.

Exactly. A lot of the time the PI is indeed going out of her way to show you something about the careerism aspects. When they tell you that you really need to wrap up that paper or really need to get it submitted? The "bear down and run those bloody controls" instruction? You know. When you start complaining about "slave drivers" and "the PI just needs it for a grant deadline, why is he always so last-minute?" You are being shown some career reality, folks.
Why don't trainees pay attention? Chances are over the course of 6 years of grad school and 3-6 yrs of postdoc training, everyone has been in a department during at least one nasty tenure fight. Meaning that you know the players pretty well, understand the objective aspects of the science career in question, etc. And plenty of rumour leaks out too. What about all this tedious bitching about NIH funding? Are you listening? Really listening? Or are you still wrapped in the hubris of thinking that you are going to be such an obviously great scientist that everyone will be prostrating themselves to hire, fund and promote you? Get real and pay attention.
Why don't trainees go to seminar anymore? Used to be that the draw of free food would bring 'em out of the woodwork. Not so much. This may be just trainees where I am at the moment, but even back in my training days I'd see people blowing off seminars, not meeting with the speakers for lunch, etc. Mostly with the excuse that it wasn't "close enough to their area" or some dodge. I was trained to go to all the seminars, even if it didn't seem all that relevant to my work. Admittedly I didn't really get the schmoozing parts of it, even though everyone senior said what a great idea it was to meet-n-greet the speakers. I said to myself "oh, sure, like this guy is going to be of use to me". Well I have a recent vignette. A couple of colleagues and I happened to be chatting with the speaker at the reception when this person remarked "Oh, we're hiring someone in [drug abuse topic X] at my university, know anyone?". So I turned around and saw that not one of our "topic X" postdocs were there in the room! The speaker was mostly a topic Y researcher and any topic X postdocs might have thought "well what can this person do for me, we're not in the same area?". And yet since the speaker's colleagues knew about the trip to our place, where topic X postdocs abound, just maybe they said to the speaker "And can you make sure you mention we're hiring when you are there for your seminar?" Lost opportunity.
Why don't trainees ever ask for help? Since I have a little bit of a local reputation for soapboxing on career issues (imagine!) I do get the odd stop-in for advice from the local postdocs. Still, many times it becomes painfully obvious that people are not seeking enough advice. After-the-fact discussions of unsuccessful application for a RealJob where it comes up "Wait, you applied for an appointment at DepartmentX in which our colleague PI Jones trained and you didn't ask her in advance about DepartmentX and what they are looking for?!!?!!!" Basic, basic, basic grantsmanship issues. The small group of younger PIs may be busy but most of us will always have time for this sort of advice...how did you not find the time seek advice before sending your application?
Wrapping up on this, I'll acknowledge that our training institutions and structures are indeed deficient in communicating "how to be a grown-up scientist", as Dr. Free-Ride puts it. This observation was one of the prime motivators for me starting this blog as it happens. Trainees, however, are not blameless. They really need to wake up and recognize the need to take assertive, proactive control of their own destinies.

28 responses so far

  • PhysioProf says:

    Two amplifications:
    (1) The shit DrugMonkey is talking about ain't that frigging complicated. It's not like quantum chemistry or something. A small investment of effort goes a long way.
    (2) The single most important thing in the post is the admonition to attend seminars. Trainees (and PIs) should attend every single seminar that it is humanly possible to attend, while still maintaining productivity in the lab, regardless of whether it is "relevant" to their research. You have no idea whether it might be relevant unless you attend. Attending seminars is one of the highest leverage activities a scientist can engage in.

  • Coturnix says:

    Back in grad school I never missed a seminar. Heck I went to many seminars in other departments. I was a grad student on the departmental seminar committee for 2-3 years and brought in several of my favourite scientists to give seminars every year. And I had to work really hard to get my fellow grad students to show up.

  • neurlover says:

    I fear that all you say is true, but that the people who are actively not doing those things are not doing them through lack of information. They're not doing them because they don't care enough about the career to do the stuff they don't want to do. I've had so many conversations with trainees about whether "this or that" is more important (and, probably, had the same conversation with my own chairs and mentors). Examples: should I write this paper or should I go to this conference? should I write this grant or should I write this paper? Should I finish this experiment or should I go to the seminar? And, the answer is, you have to do all of them. You have to go tot he seminar & you have to do the experiment. But, doing everything is a lot of work, an awful lot of work, and leaves time for little else in your life. The trainee period (and it's been made harder by it's ever-lasting extension) is a period when you are supposed to have nothing else in your life.
    So, my advise: to give this advise, tell your trainees how many hours they should be spending on each of these things: experiments, seminars, reading papers, schmoozing, writing papers, helping other trainees. Then, the mentors would be forced to recognize the overall time load, and it would stop people from hearing *just do everything* and help people prioritize. Maybe the answer is really that everything is a priority, and thus, the work can only be done with a 60 or 80 or whatever number we want to come up with work week. But, then we have to tell students that.

  • ERV says:

    Thank you for the advice!
    hehehehe And I love visiting speakers. Though I seem to get into arguments with a lot of them...

  • juniorprof says:

    Seminar thing drives me nuts too! I've never been able to understand the rationale of not attending seminars, I can't count the number of good things that have happened to me through the years just because I bothered to show up for Dept seminar. On one of my interview trips I met with at least 4 faculty I had gone to lunch with after their seminar while I was still in grad school. They all remembered me and 2 remembered me when my application crossed their desk -- wonder if that is what got my foot in the door sometimes.

  • Becca says:

    Hello, I'm a graduate student and I feel guilty going to seminars.
    Possibly seminars are just viewed inappropriately around here, but I get the distinct feeling they are considered a waste of time by many other students (and PIs).
    In response to PhysioProf-
    I also have an evil feeling that some of us science sorts find quantum chemistry pales in comparison to the networking/people skills centered things. I feel out of place going to a *hockey* game with fellow *students*. I don't even want to think of the discomfort of trying to smooze with professors in a bar after a conference. Yes I can go to seminars. Sometimes I can even get very brave and bring myself to ask questions after everyone gets up to leave. But this stuff is hard.

  • JSinger says:

    As I said over there, the vast majority of "trainees" out there are what DM once referred to as "loser postdocs". The PI has no expectation of their becoming professors or industry lab heads and doesn't make any effort to teach them to be more than senior technicians, and they themselves lack the horizon to realize that there's more to science than running gels.
    That said, there are also control freak PIs who refuse to delegate any non-lab work to anyone. I recall one who insisted on listening on the phone whenever a postdoc (!) spoke with a collaborator.
    Incidentally, I think you're being unfair to bayman. I understood him to mean not that he doesn't want to be mentored, but that he doesn't want to sit in a classroom listening to a lecture on Scientific Collaboration from whatever dinosaur the department chair dragged out of his office.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "So, my advise: to give this advise, tell your trainees how many hours they should be spending on each of these things: experiments, seminars, reading papers, schmoozing, writing papers, helping other trainees. Then, the mentors would be forced to recognize the overall time load, and it would stop people from hearing *just do everything* and help people prioritize."
    a simply stellar observation neurolover! A good thing for me as mentor to keep in mind. I'm going to have to percolate this a bit because one of the PI talents of "just-cut-to-the-chase" is actually tied to your comment.
    even there, though, it is hard for trainees to "hear" what is being said. sometimes the PI advice is to save time. for example if the PI said, "no, don't do all those stepwise meticulous validations and controls because this specific control is what you really need for publication", sometimes the trainee hears "just rush out some sloppy shit because all we're interested in is the pub, not the quality".

  • i was always stuck TEACHING when my dept seminars were being held. that was a bummer, too!

  • bayman says:

    JSinger wrote,
    Incidentally, I think you're being unfair to bayman. I understood him to mean not that he doesn't want to be mentored, but that he doesn't want to sit in a classroom listening to a lecture on Scientific Collaboration from whatever dinosaur the department chair dragged out of his office.
    Yes indeed that was more what I'm getting at. I think there are tremendously valuable aspects of scientific "careerism" to be learned. My point was to ask what is the best way to learn these things. And I think the answer is the same way you learn everything else as a scientist - through your own unique independent learning process that is guided by interaction with your supervisor and other more senior scientists around you. In fact, learning how experienced scientists think and figuring out how to interact with and learn from them is also a tremendously important (and surprisingly difficult) skill to be learned in itself. This needs to remain a dynamic and individualized process however. I shudder to think of going to seminars or classes where someone tells you how to do these things. It would be worse then spending the day in safety training. I do think that science is unique amongst other fields not because it is above these things, but because independent, self-guided learning is so critical. We need original and creative thinkers, not clones who are following a career recipe.

  • Luna_the_cat says:

    My husband has been involved in organising seminars for the last semester, and there is a huge push by the university to get grad students to go. There is just one problem; the same university which wants to get grad student attendance up at the seminars, has also cut back on faculty to the point that it is mostly grad students doing all the 1st and 2nd year teaching! Like GrrlScientist says, many of the grad students are not going to the seminars, because they are scheduled to teach that afternoon. It's actually gotten so bad in some departments that people's abiity to get lab work done is impacted by how many hours they are expected to teach, with all the extra hours for marking which always end up being there too. What are they supposed to do?

  • JSinger says:

    There is just one problem; the same university which wants to get grad student attendance up at the seminars, has also cut back on faculty to the point that it is mostly grad students doing all the 1st and 2nd year teaching!
    By teaching, you mean teaching and not TA'ing? That's simply not an acceptable way to run a university, end of story. Insufficient networking by grad students is the least of the problem there.

  • Hey folks,
    Drugmonkey anticipates (by about 4 hours) many of the things I point to in part 2. Successful trainees definitely have to pay attention and figure out how to ask good questions, even with a good advisor.
    Still, some advisors seem to see the trainees more as cheap scientific labor than as future colleagues, and working on improving the communication from both ends would be a good thing.
    On seminars: The free coffee and doughnuts at ours sucked. We consumed them (and the seminars) anyway.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Still, some advisors seem to see the trainees more as cheap scientific labor than as future colleagues, and working on improving the communication from both ends would be a good thing.

    Such mentors have an unduly cramped view of what constitutes their own success as scientists, and not only sell their trainees short, but themselves as well.

  • bayman says:

    The truth is, many biomedical research labs have more students and post-docs than one P.I. is capable of mentoring at a time. Ten-twenty post-docs and 10 grad students? Forget it. With this set-up, it's inevitable that the P.I. devotes her/his time to really mentoring only a handful to move forward in the science world, the rest indeed end up being a cheap pair of lab hands.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Becca, I have to say that the schmoozing is not my natural behavior at all. I understand where you are coming from. But do keep in mind that this is a learned behavior, i.e., it does get easier, less intimidating, etc with practice. I'll draw your attention to a post at Dr. Shellie on "networking tips for the timid". It outlines some initial and concrete steps.

  • Lou says:

    I love going to seminars. When I started my new position 4 years ago, a Nobel Laureate came for a lecture, and NO ONE in my new lab went. The reason? Because it wasn't in their field.
    I always thought it had nothing to do with careers - these people were just not interested in science.
    Love this post, by the way. I should print it out and randomly stick it around the campus...

  • PhysioProf says:

    Becca, I have to say that the schmoozing is not my natural behavior at all. I understand where you are coming from. But do keep in mind that this is a learned behavior, i.e., it does get easier, less intimidating, etc with practice.

    The key to overcoming natural reticence about schmoozing is to fully embrace the realization that people want other people to be interested in them. Schmoozing is all about showing interest in someone else and their pursuits. If you approach people in this way--by expressing interest in their science--you'll have them eating out of your hand. This is true even for Nobel Prize winners.

  • Nic says:

    In thinking how biology professions differ from others, I was wondering how the idea of the post-doc came about? Based on my limited number of n observations, it seems that this isn't common in other sciences or engineering, or if it does occur, the post-doc is a 1-2 year stint. I was wondering if it had to do with tenure competition where it used to be grad --> job and the pipeline of graduates became much more than job opportunities so people began doing post-docs in order to give themselves an extra edge and it ended up being practically mandatory.

  • ecogeofemme says:

    I think this post sounds a touch condescending and also contradicts itself a little bit, e.g. why do trainees want to be spoon fed followed by why don't trainees ask for more help?
    Grad school is a seriously strange and ill-defined blend of being a student and having a job. You can't blame people for being confused. Personally, I consider it my job, but that can be viewed negatively at times too (e.g. it should be my passion/vocation/life rather than my work).
    I think it's misguided to expect trainees to have it all figured out in high school. Many people start grad school with unrealistic expectations, both of what they will have to do and what they will get from it. Maybe it's different in the biosciences, but the hard sell prospective students get in my field is pretty rosy compared to what grad school is really like. On top of that, I don't think anyone could have made me understand what the job market would be like when I finished, even if they had told me (I'm sure someone did tell me). I think that's partly because what I wanted from life when I was 23 is somewhat different from what I want now (someone had a great post about this, but unfortunately I can't remember who).
    It's impossible to predict a job market 10 years in advance; it's got to be pretty gut wrenching to give up on a career for which one sacrificed her/his 20s when the realization strikes that there aren't enough (PI) jobs for everyone. These things are relevant because how one should approach "careerism" is probably not the same for all career paths. Perhaps some of the students you see as ineffectively managing their careers are simply preparing for a path other than professor, after learning what they have to do to become one and be one.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "and also contradicts itself a little bit, e.g. why do trainees want to be spoon fed followed by why don't trainees ask for more help?"
    I don't see it that way, although things that are slightly contradictory might still be valid. The point of these two observations is in responding to the tone over at AinE&S. The first post and commentary were basically lamenting the absence of formal instruction in careerism. My point is that often informal training is being provided or is available and is being underutilized.
    The rest of your comments, I dunno. Nothing very specific here. Sure, it is confusing. Sure, one doesn't have it "all figured out" at any point until death.
    The point about people actively managing their careers for something other than professor-dom is bizarre because there is so much overlap in careerism skills. Trust me, just because someone lands a job at NIH Program, at a drug company, etc it doesn't show they were "actively" preparing for that path. Often not. And in contrast there are people who are taking active steps for "nontraditional" careers. Burnishing the kinds of skills and CV items that are of interest to biotech, BigPharma or SLACs. I am by no means criticizing such choices.

  • JSinger says:

    In thinking how biology professions differ from others, I was wondering how the idea of the post-doc came about? ...it used to be grad --> job and the pipeline of graduates became much more than job opportunities so people began doing post-docs in order to give themselves an extra edge and it ended up being practically mandatory.
    My understanding is that postdocs became commonplace in biology in the 1970's after the steep funding increases from The War On Cancer tapered off, and the expanded supply of PhDs coming out of the expanded number of labs ran into the no-longer-expanding demand for PIs.
    This boom-and-flattening of funding, utter lack of foresight on the part of administrators, and resulting havoc for career paths may sound oddly familiar...

  • genmann77 says:

    This great post and the topic of mentoring reminded me of a conversation I had with some fellow post-docs at lunch today. This group of post-docs was negotiating the time they would have to meet with their well-known, famous PI. I was shocked to learn that their PI, who is in town for one week for the next two months, has committed 4 hours of time to meet with eight post-docs! Thirty whole minutes to convey all of the finer points of mentoring! All this with no lab manager! Why even have a lab?
    I guess anyones situation can always be worse...

  • whimple says:

    Thirty whole minutes to convey all of the finer points of mentoring! All this with no lab manager! Why even have a lab?
    Why are you so shocked? Big-name PI has a lab to publish papers and bring in grant dollars. If a few people get mentored along the way, that's great. If not, also ok.

  • msphd says:

    I love how passionate people get about these discussions! And yet, nobody really says anything new.
    The students and postdocs are blaming the PIs, and the PIs are blaming the students and postdocs.
    We all seem to agree that some changes need to be made, but we're just spinning our wheels.
    Is there a way for us to DO something about any of this? Make some real changes for the greater good? Or are we just venting to the choir?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In the professorial sense of what Dr. Free-Ride tries to do on her blog it is important to keep issuing the same challenges to conventional thinking and status quo because there are always new readers. Some will be purely defensive. Some will be choir members. And some will take what we at DrugMonkey, you at YFS and many many others have to say and really think about it. This will, and has, led to change.
    As I've pointed out before somewhere or other, the big bump in postdoc salaries that took place circa 98 or so didn't happen out of the goodness of the NIH heart. It happened because of chronic trainee complaining. The K99/R00 (and the prior NRC studies/reports) didn't happen because trainees kept telling their PIs that things were peachy keen!
    I myself have witnessed defined changes occur in specific mentor / trainee relationships. I'm not privy to the "why" in all cases but for one reason or another, someone in the PI position shifted from benign neglect to active sheparding of career. I'm hopeful that by one way or another, things that I write will assist with local change.
    Obviously, if the things that I write give a couple of trainees the courage they need to front the PI with "Say, I really need a pub, how are we going to work towards that" or the PI to say "hey, trainee, you are getting mired down here and we really need to focus on a pub" and it makes a publication materialize where otherwise not...I'm over the moon.
    If what I write allows a postdoc to explore research-project-adjunct-asst of whatever that allows a grant to be submitted, fan-freakin-tastic.
    And beyond all else, if what I write encourages a newbie grant reviewing asst professor to stick to his/her guns in the study section and focus on science over seniority...glorious.

  • […] Sb: The project of being a grown-up scientist (part 1), and the response, Scientific Careerism 101: Yes, grad students and postdocs it IS your fault […]

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