Collaborating Within Your Post-Doctoral Lab

Jan 19 2009 Published by under Careerism, Conduct of Science, Mentoring

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.

27 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    Besides, if she is a good Mango Slicer, and if Mango Slicing is something so difficult that they used to have to outsource it, the primary intellectual benefits of her skill (being consulted by other people) will not evaporate, at least not until the technician has gotten a lot of experience. Anything that involves some difficult slicing will still involve some consultation with her on the best way to do it, the sorts of samples it would be best with, etc. That will help her keep her status as a contributor to the development of a project and keep her in the loop on a lot of projects and opportunities, without requiring her to spend countless afternoons on mango slicing instead of something else.
    Moreover, taking the lead on the training of this technician might be more valuable for her than slicing yet another mango. It's something that she'll either have to do or delegate as a PI, and any sort of practice in teaching a skill is valuable for when it's your full-time job to supervise people who are learning.

  • Precisely. Being proficient in a technique means that you are able to do your postdoc experiments to your own satisfaction without relying on others and that you will be able to train the first set of people in your lab as a new PI but that's pretty much it. Using postdoc time to act as a tech for everyone else is a one-way trip to Permanent Research Associate Land.

  • Excellent advice, PP. Hire a technician to do the day-to-day crap and focus on driving the research questions.

  • whimple says:

    This very much depends on the technique and sometimes you can make a career of out. For example, if Mango Slicing is X-ray crystallography, or electron microscopy, or stop-flow kinetics or generation of transgenic mice or protein purification or anything that *entire labs* would be happy to collaborate on with you, not just people strictly within your own lab.
    In other cases, Mango Slicing might be enough to get you a job running a core facility somewhere, which also isn't a bad career, particularly if you really enjoy Mango Slicing, and don't want to have to deal with all the (very substantial) downsides of being a fledgling PI somewhere, including the very real possibility that you will never get to be a fledgling PI somewhere and will be stuck in post-doctoral limbo forever. Something like flow cytometry comes to mind here.
    If, however, Mango Slicing is western blots, or gel shift assays or anything you really can train a technician to do, then it should be handed off to a technician.

  • PP, thanks for bringing up my issue. I think the answer, after reading other perspectives, is thankfully straightforward.
    Alex, I truly hope that my colleagues will continue to consider my input when embarking on Mango slicing pursuits. If they did this, I'd be happy. I find it enjoyable to be kept in the loop; maybe I am a busybody?
    Whimple, my Mango Slicing skill is something in between electron microscopy and Western blots. It is something that is difficult to learn, requires very good hands, and not well-suited to the personality of many researchers, but it is certainly something that I can teach to the dedicated and the willing. And it is NOT something I would want to make a career out of, God help me.

  • Alex says:

    I understand the desire to be kept in the loop, but if your only way of staying in the loop is to spend a lot of time on a single technique that gets you lots of middle author papers while eating into time for first author papers, then you're doing it wrong. Train a technician, take the lead on supervising that technician and consulting on issues related to mango slicing, and learn other techniques so that you can stay in the loop through your involvement with other experiments and your interactions with the people teaching you those techniques.

  • TreeFish says:

    Wow. My ears were ringing, so I clicked on Drugmonkey! This conundrum is EXACTLY what was almost starting to happen with TreeFish. I have some tricks and inventions (not patented yet, so ssshhhh!) that enable me to be one of the world's best at what I do. I am collaborating with a crapload of high-falutin' investigators at PostDoc U, who want to use my technique to answer some very basic, but woefully unanswered, questions. So what does TreeFish do?
    "Fuck yeah," he says, nodding his head, wiggling his eyeballs, licking the moist corners of his mouth, and breathing heavily, if unevenly. "Let's do that shit. I can do it better and faster than anyone, plus it'll help you get your grant, and I'll get a nice co-authored paper out of it." Two times. Three times. Four times. And a fifth time, each with different PIs.
    "TreeFish, thanks for these beautiful figures, and the really interesting analysis. Based on your results, molecule X should be right here, perhaps acting as an auxiliary subunit for molecule Y, which is downregulated under conditions metabolic wheehoo. Can you look at co-immunoreactivity for X and Y under control conditions and after metabolic wheehoo?" ask PI's 1,2,3,4, and 5.
    TreeFish looks at the PI, then says to himself, "Can you itch my balls, or should I just stick your laser pointer up my ass and sing karaoke?"
    "Whaddya think?" say the PIs.
    "Well, just looking at one of the molecules in one of the conditions is likely to take at least a month or 2. Let's multiply that by four, and we're talking 4-6 months of full-time TreeFish on this 'side' project," TreeFish reveals, with just a smidge of passive-aggressiveness.
    "I can assign a grad student to help you out; that should shave considerable time off the project," counters the PI.
    "Well, you see it's not really a fair use of TreeFish's time, particularly because he has his own projects and commitments to post doc advisor," TreeFish states, as he stiffens his mouth and raises his eyebrows. "This project is really interesting, but it's not something that I think I can devote myself to right now. I will take a look at a few things, but I can't guarantee anything." TreeFish trails off, still talking, but not really paying attention to what he's saying to PI. Really, TreeFish is punting, carrying on until the PI gets mildly exasperated.
    This happened to me four different times. I got some nice pubs out of it, but the amount of work and stress on TreeFish wasn't worthy of the mid-authorship BS he got. The only mild exception was training and co-directing two projects for post advisor's grad students. See, TreeFish has the utmost respect and admiration for post doc advisor, who by all accounts is a fantastic scientist and person. TreeFish did a hell of a lot of the work, particularly for one of the projects, but it wasn't quite enough to garner a shared first-authorship...particularly because of the backblow that TreeFish knows such a discussion would cause. Still, if Mother Theresa sticks a cactus up your ass, it's still gonna hurt.
    So, TreeFish got a tenure track job. He can now say to the multiple PIs that want to use his technical skill, "Let's wait until I get to tenure-track-position-U. Then, we can look at that shit and do it up right."
    So, moral of the story: If you find yourself knee-deep in mid-authorship stew because of the skills you have, make sure you let people know that number one comes first. If that still doesn't work (like in TreeFish's case), punt and politely tell people: "I find your advanced paradigm stimulating, and would love to subscribe to your newletter. Collaborations, however, have to be put on hold right now because I am deeply committed to several projects. Allocating effort away from these projects isn't fair to me, and isn't fair to the projects. If I find time, though, you will be the second to know."
    Then, cock your head to the side, look at the person and, while flexing your buttocks, give 'em a pat on the shoulder and say: "Why don't you just learn the goddamn technique yourself, like I did? It should only take you a couple of years."

  • So, TreeFish got a tenure track job. He can now say to the multiple PIs that want to use his technical skill, "Let's wait until I get to tenure-track-position-U. Then, we can look at that shit and do it up right."

    As a new independent PI, you still need to be very careful about collaborating with senior people in your field. You need to be absolutely certain that you are not sacrificing senior/corresponding authorships for middle authorships. And even when you are senior/corresponding author, if senior scientists in your field are co-authors, you need to aware of the possibility of a perception that you are not functioning independently, and are riding on their coattails.

  • TreeFish says:

    True dat, homes. And thanks for your candor and your fair warning. The former will be easy, since I can limit my lab's involvement to projects that put our data in a primary slot with supportive peeps. As you imply, the latter is a bit tricky, since collaborative science often obscures scientific credit through the lens of scientific stature and reputation.
    I was involved in a real mess earlier with two PIs. The dinosaur was getting a lot of the credit, but the middling (age-wise) one deserved at least the same amount of credit. Just listing the senior authors in chronological order can lead the the misperception that the senior/corresponding author deserves the lion's share of credit. Hopefully, I can circumvent these issues with my collaborative peeps by clearly placing my fingerprint on the studies...even if they are conceptually along the same track of the senior collaborators.
    When it happens, and I might even have a FishBlog by then, y'all will be the first to hear about it.

  • TreeFish says:
    Collaborations, however, have to be put on hold right now because I am deeply committed to several projects... look at the person and, while flexing your buttocks, give 'em a pat on the shoulder and say: "Why don't you just learn the goddamn technique yourself, like I did? It should only take you a couple of years."
    This sounds nice and all, esp. because my buttocks look impressive when flexed. However, in my case we are talking about intra-group collaboration, not collaboration with other labs. It is literally impossible for me to put these people off, esp. with my supervisor breathing down my neck. Thus, I will have to get the technician.

  • Anonymous says:

    As someone who actually sections mangos, I find these posts hilarious! (Train a technician. Mangos slicing is not that exciting).

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Having a specific technical ability useful in one's scientific endeavors can greatly helps in producing better, more accurate data. Using this ability to promote one's scientific prowess not only defeats the concept of advancing science as a community activity, but can surely hinders the advancement of science. Throughout the history of science, its students always have flocked to the labs of the great inventors and discoverers of new techniques to learn how to used them. None of these inventors kept their new techniques to themselve in order to advance their personal desire for success from it rather, they were the first ones to share them with the rest of the scientific community for the betterment of all of us.

  • TreeFish says:

    True, Solly. But people don't expect Bert Sakmann, Greg Stuart, Karel Svoboda, or Eric Gouaux (or Tom Reese for that matter) to devote themselves to tech-work for the greater good. People are expected to learn from the former, rather than use the former's skills at a given technique.
    There is an all-too-fine line between teaching someone the ins-and-outs of a difficult method and doing all the work for them. If the peeps don't *really* *want* to learn, and would rather just have you do the technique for them, then it is up to the individual to decide whether or not it's a total waste of time. It is also OK to be up front about it, since you're reluctance to spend time training a non-committed trainee won't halt or obstruct the advancement of science. Only when you resist training truly interested people are you obstructing scientific advancement.
    If CE decides to train a tech, even if it's just to get people off his/her back, then good on him/her. But I think the deeper dilemma (and finer line) is what to do with people who want you to do the tricky method, rather than learning it themselves.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Fish,
    There is no technique that only one person can perform best. If you haves mastered a technique and have chosen to become a supertechnician by performing that technique by yourself for the benefit of others, you should not complain for getting only in the middle of the list of authors. As you said, if other collaborators ask you to perform your magic for their project, it is up to you to say "no."
    Throughout the past 25 years, I have made use of a specific technique that help me receive recognition and fame. I am very good at executing it, a fact that help me greatly in getting were I am. However, the technique on its own is worthless without the science that it helps to advance. Very early in that period of mastering the technique I realized that unless I quickly train a technician to do as good a job as I do with that technique, I will forever remain my own supertechnician. Luckily for me, I did train a technician who became better at it than I ever was, freeing me to focus on the science.

  • TreeFish says:

    Sol, I think that might be the first written passage by you that I have ever agreed with! It is certainly the most insightful and useful! Good on you!

  • anon says:

    I was stuck in a Mango Slicing postdoc position and due to lack of mentorship I had to figure out all on my own that I was in a bad position. My PI certainly was happy for me to be a Mango Slicer.
    By the time I figured it out, 3 and half years had passed. Sure I got the initial first-author papers on my development of Mango Slicing, but after that I was a middle author on all the other postdocs' new exciting projects that they were leading and I was doing service work for them. I started to realize something was seriously wrong when they stopped asking me for creative input (because by then my Mango Slicing technique was developed enough to be predictable) and instead just "placed orders" with me. I ended up with a ton of middle author papers and only a couple of first-author papers. ( my first-author papers on Mango Slicing are the most highly cited papers my PI has ever had, but still I wasted the rest of the time servicing other people's projects rather than continuing to do something new independently)
    Result: the other postdocs went on to get PI positions (if that was their career goal) whereas I had to do a second postdoc where I was careful to NOT be in a Mango Slicing position again unless it was to service my OWN independent line of research. The PI eventually hired a technician anyway, and I trained the technician in Mango Slicing and happily left the group (well, happily is not exactly the word given that I realized I was so set back in my career from having been a Mango Slicer for so long...)
    Yes you can make a career and get a job being a Mango Slicer, but it is not a PI-type of position. Frankly I see a lot of scientists in industrial or government labs who are glorified Mango Slicers and I wouldn't ever want their job or career path. For example, people who do materials characterization using the same old characterization techniques over and over again on just slight variations of materials. Sure they may have secure jobs because SOMEONE needs to do that kind of work, and they may be absolutely world renown for their infinitely fine-tuned skills and insight into that technique so this makes them indispensable. But truthfully, I think they are doing highly-skilled technician work. They seem to be very content doing it though. It's predictable and therefore low risk. there's no stress of 'will this project pan out or will my grant get cut for lack of results?' ...You wake up in the morning knowing exactly what you will be doing that day and what you will be doing next week, and the week after....*gag*...

  • Dave says:

    This is a no-brainer, and anyone who doesn't understand the difference between technician work and the role of faculty really has no hope.
    Physioprof, in his original post, nails it. Faculty are hired to train and manage teams of people. Faculty are not hired to slice mangos. If a department wanted a mango slicer, it'd hire one -- for a fraction of the price of a faculty member. That's what facilities managers are. Or lab techs. Or lab instructors.
    The mango slicer in question should pass the knowledge on ASAP, then learn something new and pass that on, all the time making sure he/she is actually figuring stuff out using these fancy-pants techniques. Because no one cares how nicely you can slice a mango unless there is some purpose behind it.
    There are no upsides to hoarding expertise. Sure you'll get papers. So what? My tech has craploads of papers, because he's on just about every paper that comes out of the lab. But he's not about to be hired as faculty. Someone else is eventually going to slice mangos better, or sliced mangos will go out of style, and then mangoslicer will be unemployed or -- at best -- the cranky old jerk in the basement wasting his life teaching some outdated undergraduate lab for $3000 a semester and grumbling about how no one ever appreciated his skill.

  • JD says:

    Something else that I often find is that these kinds of collaborations can actually take more time than your own first author papers. Explaining a technique can take time as can doing the 60-odd permutations so that a new author can gain comfort in the results of the technique and develop an intuition for what results mean.
    I have often been a middle author on a paper that took far more effort than a first author paper ever did. The endless hours in the lab trying to make up for the lost time are an unpleasant consequence.

  • Alex says:

    For example, people who do materials characterization using the same old characterization techniques over and over again on just slight variations of materials. Sure they may have secure jobs because SOMEONE needs to do that kind of work, and they may be absolutely world renown for their infinitely fine-tuned skills and insight into that technique so this makes them indispensable. But truthfully, I think they are doing highly-skilled technician work. They seem to be very content doing it though. It's predictable and therefore low risk. there's no stress of 'will this project pan out or will my grant get cut for lack of results?'

    If you don't want to do that, don't do that, but two observations:
    1) Maybe they aren't just doing it out of fear of risk and a preference for monotony. Maybe they actually like the sorts of things they do. Maybe they find it fun to operate the equipment and do the measurements. Some people love working with their hands. And maybe they love the opportunity to do something they like while also encountering a wide range of different specimens. To them, maybe every day is a chance to see a new material, a new piece of nature, and find out what's in it.
    Don't pursue that career if you don't like it, but don't turn your nose up at them either.
    2) More generalized rant: In the science blogging community there's a lot of lamentation about how super-competitive it is to get a PI position and keep a group running. There's a lot of frustration about this state of affairs, and lamentation that there aren't more balanced career options. Then, when the topic turns to a job that might have somewhat more manageable hours and a bit more security and predictability and yet still offer a chance to be involved with new research, there's snobbery about how that is mere technician work. Never mind that this path may require a lot of skill and offer the opportunity to see different samples for different applications.
    Again, if you don't want to do it, don't do it. But snobbery about anything other than a PI position seems counter-productive.

  • Dave says:

    Alex (in response to #19):
    I don't think anyone here is being snooty about tech work. We're only ridiculing the inability to differentiate tech work from PI work.
    Another post entirely is how it's also a huge mistake for postdocs to pretend they are PIs and spend all their time schmoozing and thinking big picture stuff instead of getting anything done. Honestly, I have seen more postdocs crash and burn trying to prematurely be PIs than I have seen postdocs who spent time on tech work. But both are mistakes. The secret to postdocing is simple: 1) Prove you can figure stuff out, and 2) Convince people you could figure even more stuff out if you had a lab of your own.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Intriguing Dave, because of course while I always caveat that you have to produce in the postdoc, I also encourage PI think. I guess I haven't run across that many who are so focused on the horizon that they fail to get anything done.

  • MJ says:

    In other cases, Mango Slicing might be enough to get you a job running a core facility somewhere, which also isn't a bad career, particularly if you really enjoy Mango Slicing....
    Sometimes, if you can carve out enough time and money (usually I've seen core facility directors be appointed as adjunct faculty/lecturers), you can actually do a bit of basic research as related to Mango Slicing. Sure, everyone on your campus who needs their mangoes sliced will come your way, but you can also finally have the space and time to figure out, for instance, what the differences are between slicing mangoes with a straight-edged blade versus a curved blade, and how that relates to slicing phenomenona in general.

  • Dave says:

    "Intriguing Dave, because of course while I always caveat that you have to produce in the postdoc, I also encourage PI think."
    I think they are separate jobs. My summary of the academic process...
    1) As an undergrad, prove you can learn. Make people wonder what you could figure out if given the chance to generate new knowledge.
    2) As a grad student, prove you can figure something out. Make people wonder what you could accomplish if given more time and resources.
    3) As a postdoc, prove you can organize and appropriately utilize resources to figure stuff out relatively independently. Make people wonder what amazing things you could do if given even more resources and, especially, help by students and postdocs of your own.
    4) As a PI, prove you can change the world. Make people shake their head in wonder at your accomplishments, and eventually selfishly try to cripple your productivity by appointing you Department head or Dean where you'll rot away in meetings trying to figure out what to do about other people's failures.

  • Becca says:

    "We're only ridiculing the inability to differentiate tech work from PI work."
    It's comments like these that make me want to open up a can of reverse-snobbism.
    After all, we wouldn't want people mistaking REAL work (actual scientific experiments) from stuff PIs do (shmoozing and pretending to 'think big picture stuff' while actually checking baseball statistics)
    "Those who can, DO. Those who can't, TEACH (those who can't teach, administrate)". Yes this still applies to all you tenured full profs in ivy schools publishing all the time in Glamor Mags. The administrator part goes double for those of you who endlessly kvetch about teaching/how awful students are!

  • Dave says:

    Becca, you have have made a classic epistemological error. Remember: 'The exception[1] proves[2] the rule'.
    [1] Exceptions being the ones you describe.
    [2] As in 'establish validity', per liquor bottle usage.
    Think about my statements above and write a 2000 word essay explaining why my insights are brilliant, due Tuesday, and worth 30% of your grade.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    In defense of using your own hands beginning with your first research project (M.Sc. in my case) and all the way to your PI projects: If you are incapabe yourself to use each and every one of the techniques and methods employed in your reseach, you are bound to find yourself in a disatvantage, especially when technical problems arise. As a rule, throughout my career, I have been involved personally with all the experiments ever performed in my lab. Being familiar with the different techniques and methods I could always spot a problem with "strange" data when the cause had been technical. It also helped in a few instances to spot attempts by lazy students, technicians or postdocs to fabricate or polish data. On the bright side, familiarity with the technique allowed me to come up with my own technical improvements and in several cases invent my own inventions (no patents, only publications).

  • We're only ridiculing the inability to differentiate tech work from PI work.
    In the context of my situation as a postdoc, I do not think it's entirely clear WHERE to draw the line between being a tech and being a PI. Because really, being a postdoc is some of each. Yes ideally, I'd like to give away all of my bitch work to underlings, but I really don't think that's my role at this time, you know?

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