Candid Engineer in Academia has an interesting post up today seeking input on a question that brings up the issue of collaborative efforts within the laboratory in which you are receiving your post-doctoral training. It turns out that she is describing a very, very dangerous situation that she needs to manage very carefully in light of her goal of eventually achieving an independent PI position in academia.
I'll let CEA set the stage:
Although there are a lot of people in my lab, I possess a very valuable set of skills, Mango Slicing, that no one else in the lab has. Prior to my arrival in the lab, we had to send all of our mangoes out to be sliced, and there were a lot of constraints and problems with such an arrangement. My most major contribution to our lab has been my ability to do all of the Mango Slicing in-house.
I feel good about being about to contribute this skill because it is a very important part of the Mango Harvesting process, and it is the only major skill that I possess that I believe to be truly unique to me in this huge lab.
My supervisor would like to ramp up the Mango Slicing process, but there is only so much that I can do. I am not particularly interested in ramping up the number of mangoes I slice, primarily because I do not like the motivation behind the extra slicing. I only like to slice the tastiest Mangoes. Yes, I am fussy, I know.
My supervisor wants me to hire a technician to do all of the Mango Slicing in order to increase throughput. I am really torn on this issue.
UH, OH!!!111!!!111!!1 DANGER WILL ROBINSON!!111! DANGER!11!
CEA wonders whether she should hire a technician to do the Mango Slicing, but seem not to be even considering the possibility that being the BEST MANGO SLICER EVAH is even in her best interests, as the possible relevant CONS she is considering to this plan are only the following:
#1 Everyone on the Mango project, if their work goes well, will eventually need their mangoes to be sliced. If we have a Mango slicing technician, this technician will be the one to collaborate with everyone instead of me. I want to be the one collaborating with people, because it is interesting.
#2 (related to #1) I will basically have given away my most valuable skill. I have done all of the hard work of establishing this Mango Slicing process, but everyone will go through the technician instead of me. I won't get any credit. Selfish of me, maybe, but true.
The problem with this entire analysis is that the kind of credit CEA is talking about here--middle-author collaborative credit for performing some technical procedure in the context of a project being led by some other trainee in the laboratory--is nearly worthless in relation to ultimately securing an independent PI position in academia.
Professor in Training nails this motherfucker in her comment:
Sometimes you have to learn to let go. If the lab's overall demand for Mango Slicing is getting to the point where it is taking you away from your own work, it's time to pass the repetitive work onto a technician. Use the time you save to work on learning something new. At the end of your postdoc experience, you want to walk away having as many tools in your belt as possible; you're already proficient in Mango Slicing so it's time to add something else to your repertoire. You need to concentrate on developing and producing first author papers, not continuing to do repetitive Mango Slicing that will get you added on several papers as a co-author.
When it comes time to look for independent academic positions, no one is going to give a flying fuck that you are the world's greatest mango slicer and your middle-author collaborative efforts enabled a fuckton of manuscripts from your post-doctoral lab. If that is what happens--at the expense of your own first-author manuscripts--you are going to be watching as those first authors get independent positions and you don't.
Frankly, *effective* faculty hiring committees couldn't give a flying fuck what you can actually do experimentally with your own hands, and your status as world's greatest middle-author collaborative mango slicer doesn't mean jack diddly fucking shit. They want evidence that you can organize and orchestrate and devise and develop and lead a research program.