PhysioProf Is Seriously Pissed Off

Apr 18 2008 Published by under Careerism

I just started reading a piece in Nature Reviews Neuroscience entitled, "Choices in Neuroscience Careers", and by the second paragraph I was totally enraged. Some huge-ass PI dude named Tamas Bartfai had the following advice for grad students and post-docs concerning choosing an area of research and laboratory for their training:

Rather than choosing a 'hot topic', it is much more important to find a great mentor: somebody who has made a significant contribution to science, who has name recognition and whose laboratory attracts the brightest young people who will provide both real camaraderie and competition. It is clearly better to be in a laboratory with a well-known scientist with a depth of experience, who has little time but who provides a stimulating environment with many competing postdoctoral researchers who will be your peers during the decades to come, than it is to work in the laboratory of a young scientist who might themselves still be struggling and might even change their affiliation or direction during the time that you are training with them.

This is pernicious nonsense. Just as there are pluses and minuses to being in a big-ass lab filled with trainees where you hardly see the PI, but she is a big macher, there are pluses and minuses to being in a start-up lab with hardly any trainees where the PI is around all the time, but nobody has any clue who the fuck she is.
Big famous labs have the benefits of being, well, big and famous: lots of resources, name recognition of PI, and lots of other trainees to interact with. On the downside, trainees may flounder for months, or even years, going in fruitless directions, because the PI doesn't have time to pay attention to any one trainee, and doesn't have any incentive to give a flying fuck about the success of any one trainee. For such a PI, trainee success is a statistical issue, and so long as some non-zero percentage of trainees don't crash and burn, everything is copacetic. Also, there is probably intense competition among trainees for the interesting projects, and you may get stuck with some boring shit.
Small start-up labs have the detriments of being, well, small and start-up: there may be limited resources, the PI does not have power, and there may not be tons of other trainees to interact with. The plus side is, however, substantial.
You will have tons of time to interact with the PI, and the PI cares a fuckload about you and your success, because trainee success is not a statistical matter: every trainee in a start-up lab has to succeed. You will be working directly with the PI on an ongoing--even daily--basis in planning, interpreting, troubleshooting, and moving forward your project. You will have the pick of interesting projects. And you will have experienced what it takes to start and manage a new lab, invaluable when you start your own. Also, your success as a trainee in a young lab provides a lot more evidence to job search comittees of your future promise as an independent investigator than success in a big-ass lab that squeezes out a couple fucking Cell/Nature/Science papers every year with ten authors each.
I started my own post-doc in my mentor's lab the day she opened the doors as a totally green assistant professor. We worked together side-by-side on a daily basis designing, interpreting, troubleshooting, and anaylzing experiments, as well as doing both short-term and long-term planning of her research program. Can there be any question how fucking valuable that was as a learning/mentoring experience for me? And I saw both the smart and not-so-smart decisions she made--and how she made them--that determined the future course of her career.
I managed three first-author papers in 3.5 years as a post-doc with her, one in Cell/Science/Nature, and the other two in >7 impact-factor journals. I was successful in my own job search, and am now a junior faculty member at an extremely well-regarded private medical school. I have multiple R01s, and my lab is publishing papers at a nice clip. Sounds like a pretty fucking decent outcome, no?
Based on many discussions concerning my own faculty search, and in the context of faculty search committees I have served on, I can promise you that it impresses the shit out of people when a trainee has tremendous success in the laboratory of a junior faculty member. And talk to anyone who has ever served on a faculty search committee, and they will regale you with stories of two- or three-C/N/S-paper post-doc from big-ass laboratory who sucked total shit once they got out from under the protective umbrella of Professor Fucking Big-Ass.
Are there risks to joining a new lab? Of course. The PI could suck, she could get fired, etc, etc, etc. But there is a tremendous potential up-side, if you choose wisely, and hitch your star to that of a junior faculty member who is, herself, a rising star.
And not that trainees should give a flying fuck about this, but junior faculty do need to have good trainees in their labs so that they can, you know, succeed and get promoted and tenured and become a huge-ass swinging-dick macher like Bartfai, who goes on to tell trainees not to join the labs of his junior colleagues!
Note to Tamas (who I don't know at all): Way to simultaneously be totally full of shit and kick your junior faculty colleagues right in the fucking teeth!
(I know there is more patently false pernicious bullshit in Bartfai's comment I quoted than I have analyzed here, so I will leave further exegesis as an exercise for our readers. Go to it in the comments!)
UPDATE: Just to clarify, I agree completely with the first sentence of what I quoted, so long as "significant contribution" and "name recognition" are construed broadly enough to encompass a highly successful post-doc who has just started her own lab.

16 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    I can see the merit in both perspectives. I would say though, that in general Bartfai's comment makes a lot of sense for picking a post-doc. The relative impact of the advantages in being in a new faculty members lab are much greater at the grad student level. Bartfai's advice is almost *evil* to give to most grad students, it is merely (likely self-serving) biased to give such advice to post-docs. It also isn't anything I haven't heard before.
    Actually, the first line is *very good advice*
    (don't choose a 'hot topic'; choose a good mentor). The trouble is, what 'good mentor' means will be different depending on the trainee. For people who have weaknesses in their bench skills, they may require a 'good mentor' to provide hands-on help/demonstration of techniques. For people who are too terrifed to go up to a bigwig and introduce themselves, they may require a 'good mentor' to introduce them and help them smooze.
    Really good mentors, of course, do both (or help you find somebody who will).

  • Etha Williams says:

    What really gets me about these sorts of articles (and I think Nature is often weakest on its 'career' advice articles and the like) is that it seems to completely ignore the fact that different people are, well, different. Some will benefit from one working environment; others from a completely different one. It sounds like this person is generalizing his opinions/experiences and assuming that they will apply to everyone, which is simply ridiculous.

  • mole says:

    One of the other people quoted, Nancy Rothwell said

    It is equally important to consider, when choosing a laboratory, the environment you will work in and the people you will work with. It is important that the institution, department and supervisor you are considering are supportive of the careers of young scientists. So, ask whether they are well funded and well regarded and whether they provide real training and mentorship. On any laboratory visit, ask to meet young Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers (separately from the laboratory head), ideally in an informal setting. Ask them about the laboratory's past record of success and the career progression of young scientists in the laboratory.

    Sound advice. This Bartfai character actually chairs the remnants of his department, the attribution in the piece is out of date. I say "remnant" because since taking over a group of about 25 PIs, 6 left for another department with another 5 poised to do the same. 3 mid- to later-career people left for new jobs. 3 early- to mid-career pushed out with uncertain prospects.
    This guy has had one of the three assistant profs in his original Scripps group fail to thrive and go back to glorified postdoc'ing elsewhere. The one that remains in his group didn't have independent funding until about yr 6 whereupon associate prof was awarded (typically, a stronger independent funding record has been required in that department).
    The department has been unable to hire anyone new so far despite a handful of candidates from (you guessed it) high profile labs being interviewed.
    Nature Reviews Neuroscience does nobody any favors in presenting this guy's opinions as if they are worth anything.

  • bayman says:

    Wow. Was that article a joke?
    The problem with that dude's statements go beyond just pros/cons or "some people need this, some people that". Some of it is downright dishonest and self-serving. The bit about competing with post-docs in the same lab as you ("who will be your peers for decades to come") for example is a recipe for disaster. This leads to a whole bunch of unnecessary animosity and a stressful, unpleasant work environment. There's plenty of people out there in the world of science to drive you to compete, you don't need to do it with the guy at the bench next to you. Rather, fellow students and post-docs should be supporting each other, learning to collaborate and build relationships/contacts that will be of mutual benefit when you move elsewhere. Demolishing each other through internal competition does no one any good. Except PIs who want to get production without putting sufficient effort into lab supervision.

  • juniorprof says:

    I found this one to be riotously funny:
    Doing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree or other non-scientific degree often backfires because it begs the question, did you not trust that you will be a good enough scientist? Doing such degrees and knowing about topics unrelated to research has become possible and might be desirable for both researchers in industry and academic scientists, but it is deep knowledge of your specialty and not having another degree that will lend you credibility.
    Wow, just wow! (perhaps I'll go back and get that fashion design degree after all).
    Way to simultaneously be totally full of shit and kick your junior faculty colleagues right in the fucking teeth!
    Exactly... I sometimes think that there are a large number of scientists of a certain age range who would rather savor their greatness until the day they drop dead than see a new generation achieve more than they did. It is patently obvious that for the foreseeable future every successive generation will make strides that the previous generation wouldn't even have imagined at an equivalent point in their development. The sooner everyone gets over themselves and drops their artificial barriers to progress the better.

  • Coturnix says:

    I had the best of both worlds: a small lab with a veteran PI of grand stature in the field, wisdom about the world of science, and time to discuss my work whenever I needed it...heck, even coming into the lab to help do the work. That is why I never blog about the nasty life in grad school - I never experienced it first-hand. It was a positive experience 100%.

  • The other, unmentioned implication is that there's far too much reverence given to letters of recommendation from huge-ass scientists. Search committees are either too busy or too lazy (pick one) to properly screen large numbers of applicants, and so a letter from someone they've all heard of makes more impact, sometimes, than a good record of productivity.

  • rjb says:

    One downside of joining a big lab, especially as a postdoc, is that it may be difficult to take your project with you to start your own lab. Once you leave, 2-3 new people will be brought in to continue that work, and then you need to start your own lab somewhere. Also, your colleagues may wonder whether you CAN start your own line of fundable research separate from your well-funded mentor (I've seen this in hiring discussions). Not saying it's a complete negative to go with a large lab, but this is another consideration

  • PhysioProf says:

    The other, unmentioned implication is that there's far too much reverence given to letters of recommendation from huge-ass scientists. Search committees are either too busy or too lazy (pick one) to properly screen large numbers of applicants, and so a letter from someone they've all heard of makes more impact, sometimes, than a good record of productivity.

    This can be a concern. I will say that on search committees I have served on, we have paid much more attention to actual accomplishments than letters of recommendation. We have never been impressed by effusive praise in the absence of real accomplishments, and what we have used the letters for is much more to look for signs of possible negatives.

  • Beaker says:

    The advice to join a big-ass honcho laboratory changed my career. I started out as Beaker (literally), a 5-year technician in a pedestrian research laboratory at Midwestern U. When we managed a JBC paper, the whole department praised the PI, telling him how jealous they were that we managed to publish in such a high-profile journal.
    When I went to grad school and landed in the lab of Famous Big PI, my eyes were opened. By that time, my bench skills were excellent, and I did not need somebody looking over my shoulder. In Big Lab, I got exactly what I needed: training to ask important questions in important areas, exposure to colleagues from big-ass Ivy League schools I had heard about but never visited, and the thrill of both collegiality and competition between me and them. We sometimes published in JBC--but only if Nature and its babies said no.
    And yes--I witnessed people smarter than me join the lab and flounder, owing to lack of bench experience. They were thrown in at the deep end and did not stay afloat.
    Bartfai may be a wanker, but for me, advice like his was just what the doctor ordered.

  • bbq says:

    there's no reason to think what worked for one person will work just as well for another person. arguing personal opinions gets that person nowhere. if that's what worked for bartai, fine. if what you wrote got you somewhere, that's fine too.

  • I think NRN must be out of money for editors. The evidence? Publishing self-serving drivel like this (what next, an opinion piece on how publishing in Nature is good for your career?), and misuse of the phrase "beg the question" (see juniorprof's comment).
    To beg the question, friends, is to dance around the question as though you're addressing it, without really doing so. It's a classic politician's ploy. It does NOT mean that you are begging someone to ask this question. Get a clue, sad NRN editors!

  • whimple says:

    It depends on why you're doing a post-doc. If it's to get an academic faculty position, go to the big-name lab. Our (unwritten, but obviously enforced) policy here is that you don't get an interview unless somebody on the search committee has heard of and been impressed by your post-doctoral advisor.
    ( which is not to say that I agree with this policy )

  • juniorprof says:

    I think some are missing the point. Everyone has their reason for choosing a postdoc, fine, whatever floats your boat, all the best to you (seriously, its your decision, weigh the factors and decide and I hope every one of you achieves your goals).
    On the other hand, trainees around the world will read this piece. A good portion of it fucks junior faculty over. It is poor advice (because it ignores the nuance of the personal decision) and it is bad for our profession (because it reinforces the BS dogma).

  • PhysioProf says:

    It depends on why you're doing a post-doc. If it's to get an academic faculty position, go to the big-name lab.

    This is exactly the kind of overly-broad categorical bullshit that spewed from Ratfail's keyboard and onto the pages of NRN.

    Our (unwritten, but obviously enforced) policy here is that you don't get an interview unless somebody on the search committee has heard of and been impressed by your post-doctoral advisor.

    This is absolutely, emphatically, and completely not the case at my institution, which is an extremely highly regarded private medical school. If it were the case, I would not have a tenure-track position here.
    And this is not a policy that we have ever followed--either implicitly or explicitly--on the search committees I have served on, both in my own department and in others here. We are impressed by post-docs who succeed in non-famous labs.
    Just another data point.

  • neurolover says:

    I think the important point for this career advise is t give people data points and pluses & minuses, not make their decision for them. I think I probably agree with Bartfai that "all things being identical" a big lab is better than a small lab for a post doc (and agree with Becca that I think small labs can have value for grad students). But, labs are never identical. You're choosing among topics, among personalities, among institutions, among locations, and all of those things make a difference in defining the fit.
    As another data point, we certainly pay attention to whether we know the recommenders of both our graduate applicants & our faculty in searches. But, we know the junior profs in our field, as well as the famous guys. And, we don't hire people doing stuff where that's not true. I think this stat might be different for smaller/more teaching oriented universities, which may do more hiring in a field where they don't know the players (and the players include both the bigwigs and the up-and-coming new guys.)

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