Running out of grant funding

Feb 04 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

A piece published in Nature reviews the grant woes of two scientists who are facing the expiration of all of their research funding.
One PI pulled a 10.6%ile score but since it was assigned to notoriously payline-adherent NINDS (payline 10%ile) she may not get her award. Of course, there is always a chance that NINDS Council or even the Director may pull it up for funding, perhaps on the heels of the stimulus dollop.
The other PI complains about being in that middle career zone, too senior to catch new-investigator breaks and too junior to have established one of those records that commands good score regardless of crappy application writing. [okay, that was an embellishment but you get my point]


I hate these articles. I really do. They frequently point the finger in the wrong direction and convey bad mentoring advice. The Gestalt if this one isn't great. But it has a couple of good object lessons.

Kelley knows now that she should have kept a second supporting grant in place. "The NIH funding programme takes people like me who run small labs, and have only a single grant, and penalizes them basically," she says. "Because they are not playing the game. They are not playing this multi-grant game." But others say that researchers such as Kelley need to anticipate how the funding environment will change and adjust their strategy accordingly. "If the NIH is turning towards a more clinically focused and translational-medicine emphasis, then it is researchers' responsibility to figure out how their research can fit in," says Hudson.

With respect to the first issue, it isn't necessarily about big/small labs but more about being smart. She seems to have thought that she could just go on renewing her award. Well, the time of near-automatic renewals is over. The revision cycle means that the timing is really dodgy even if you can manage to renew the award. The only rational response is to do an overlap of different grants and/or just keep writing new ones. You don't have to have multiple awards all the time, you just have to do a little dance to keep the funding consistent.
The second bit need not focus on particular demands and touch on typical inflammatory buzzwords. It is always necessary to know what the funding agency is looking for. Good papers are not enough.
Moving along...

Part of the problem, Rafael-Fortney thinks, is that she occupies a difficult middle ground in her scientific career: not senior enough to have years of resources and networks to fall back on in hard times, nor 'young' enough -- ten years or closer to her PhD -- to profit from NIH programmes targeted at the newest scientists. "Mostly the superstars are getting funded," she says. One NIH administrator had told her: "Unfortunately you're not a giant in the field and you're not at Harvard."


hmm, why is this....?

Recently, she finished reviewing a stack of fellowship applications for the NIH and she says she was tempted to favour the 'safer' proposal, the one with all the preliminary data in hand. "It's really hard to not go for the one experiment that's almost done," she says. Her fear is that if she starts rejecting risky projects, as hers were rejected, then more researchers in her position will be shut out. "It's going to just wipe out the whole middle," she says. "Everyone between the ages of 35 and 50 are just going to be gone in science."


"I've seen the problem and it is us"????
The initial rounds of review really drive the engine on this one people. Get on study section. Speak up against the status quo with meaningful, well reasoned arguments. Go to bat for "risky" proposals if you really believe this is the best science. Resist being swayed by superstar reputations.
[h/t: PhysioProf]

107 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    ""I've seen the problem and it is us"????
    The initial rounds of review really drive the engine on this one people. Get on study section. Speak up against the status quo with meaningful, well reasoned arguments. Go to bat for "risky" proposals if you really believe this is the best science. Resist being swayed by superstar reputations."
    ---------
    No doubt DM was wincing when he saw that I'm commenting first, expecting some moronically-built bombshell. But...
    Hear hear! Well said!
    WE are the future of science. It's up to us to make things the way we think they should be.

  • Pinus says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. It was a very interesting read.
    It kind of blows my mind how these people who have been very successful at obtaining non-NIH funding didn't have more than one iron in the fire. Granted (like that pun?!), I am new to the game but every mentor I have had has reinforced the need to have multiple R01 level awards, because you never know when one just won't make it.

  • DM, I'd be interested to hear your take on the news I had this evening regarding hiring freezes and startup funds. Motherfucking hell. The world's gone mad.

  • Dave says:

    PiT: I wouldn't worry too much about the sort of scenario you are worried about. This sort of thing is happening in a lot of places. I am sure you will get unrestricted use of startup funds. My university has a similar-sounding policy in place right now, but it's mainly to curb the hiring of administrative or facility help from state funds and not intended to restrict the use of lab funds. Allow an extra week or whatever for some administrative OK during the hiring process, but bottom line: Don't sweat it; get on with your job.
    But, as has been said on this blog before: Conserve that startup if at all possible. It's golden magic money, and you won't see another influx of it until you seek and are offered another faculty position somewhere (note that this doesn't mean you have to leave your present institution).

  • TreeFish says:

    Hmmmm. I have always wondered about the ol' sophomore slump in science. It does seem to impact people, hitting somewhere between their full-of-promise-young-hotshot days and their my-lab-is-huge-and-CNS-loves-us days.
    Is there an analogy to rock bands? For example, is the sophomore slump in science attributable to PIs getting too comfortable, churning out papers in niche journals just to stay productive (v.v., Elvis, Rolling Stones, the Dead...or worse Dokken and Motley Crue...churning out singles just to sell albums)? Or is it really attributable to a stigma associated with the not-young-not-old-enough age of these PIs?
    If it's the former, then perhaps the heart-wrenching career threats from running out of grant money mid-career provides the impetus for the middle-aged PI to recapture their youthful scientific vigor. If it's the latter, then things won't be pretty, since they'll now be fighting ESIs and established PIs for a very finite pool of dough.
    Perhaps a new mechanism targeting hot-shot mid-career scientists (funding period similar to an R37) would give freedom and security simultaneously?
    Or worse, perhaps this is another round of pruning that takes place before one is truly an established investigator.
    BTW, Chad Pennington won comeback-player of the year award twice! Should there be a similar award in science? Methinks it would be too embarassing (e.g., What did I 'comeback' from, fucko?!?!?!?!).

  • Odyssey says:

    For example, is the sophomore slump in science attributable to PIs getting too comfortable, churning out papers in niche journals just to stay productive (v.v., Elvis, Rolling Stones, the Dead...or worse Dokken and Motley Crue...churning out singles just to sell albums)? Or is it really attributable to a stigma associated with the not-young-not-old-enough age of these PIs?
    I have had just such a slump which I am now fighting my way out of. In my case is was most definitely a case of getting too comfortable (i.e. all my fault, no one else's). I have little time for anyone who tries to pin the entire blame on the system.

  • Beaker says:

    Is there an analogy to rock bands? For example, is the sophomore slump in science attributable to PIs getting too comfortable, churning out papers in niche journals just to stay productive (v.v., Elvis, Rolling Stones, the Dead...or worse Dokken and Motley Crue...
    I think the rock star analogy IS appropriate, but you have chosen the wrong examples. For a whole lot of great rock bands, the "sophomore slump" produced some of their best music, but only when viewed in retrospect. I'm thinking of the Kinks, the Cure, and the Talking Heads, just to name a random few.
    It is precisely that analogy that is relevant here. The muscular dystrophy researcher discussed in the article had a high-profile Cell paper during her postodc, which she leveraged in to a faculty position and generous startup. She could have just gone on churning out the hits, using the tried and true formula from her postdoc. Instead, she tried something new and "risky." It's called "experimental," and it is what we scientists are supposed to be good at for God's sake. Record buyers quit buying Kinks albums during the band's glorious "middle period." Likewise, the NIH wanted more of the same stuff: you know, the tired-and-true safe research that guarantees a boring and predictable career and pleases groupthink study sections.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I believe that with all the good intentions and advices by DM and the commenters, things will get much worse in the next 2-5 years where Federal funding of scientific research is concerned. Those who think that the economic downturn somehow will skip the scientific community can expect a rude awakening. I believe that many "pink slips" are in the future of academic instituions and those will be given mainly to the faculty members who are not yet tenured. Any bailout of the NIH in the current bill in front of congress, even if approved and funded, will not have the desired effect in time to change the upcoming scenario of many lost jobs in academia. Many state universities see significant cuts in their budgets, cuts that funding by the NIH, if and when the bill is approved, will not turn around in time. Just like in any other segment of our economy that experiences the wrath of the coming depression, the academia, unfortunately, will not be spared.
    Thus, many of the PIs who are going to find themselves soon on the chopping block should consider not only strategies for continuous grant funding of their labs, but also alternative jobs outside academia (good luck). It will be very painful for many of our young, unprotected scientists.

  • TreeFish says:

    Thanks, Sol.
    I'm gonna go slit my wrists and shove a pencil in my neck...
    I have heard that many Administrators (e.g., Deans) are now directing faculty to get ready to submit proposals for new equipment for core facilities and 'high-risk-high-reward' projects, in anticipation of the President's stimulus bill.
    That means that the fogies will be competing directly with the younguns', and more importantly, that people with the ducks in a row (or, as CPP would say "with their shit together") stand to benefit from this anticipated and temporary bump in funding.
    I was told long ago: "The future is heading straight for your fucking face. Be prepared."
    That meant all kinds of things then; and now it means all kinds of other things: multiple grants in the horn, multiple funding agencies in my rolodex, reach-arounds and ass-kissing to bigwigs, seminars and review service, making POs feel appreciated and smart (they are both), and keeping my ear to the tracks so I can get a heads-up about an approaching train (good or bad).
    I think that, for the most part, if you do all those things, it will work out. Not 100%, but significantly above chance. I hate to see bad crimes and exceptions determine the law and the rules.
    Then again, I am still young and am not at mid-career (or even beginning of a career yet!), so perhaps I am being PollyAnnish...maybe I'll take a handful of painkillers instead.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Tree,
    I really wish things would end up as bright as we all dream. Nevertheless, the daily bad economic news and the politics our politicians continue to play with our future do not send good signals that our bright dream will come true. These times are for being practical, frugal and realistic with a touch of audacity of hope.

  • neurolover says:

    "That meant all kinds of things then; and now it means all kinds of other things: multiple grants in the horn, multiple funding agencies in my rolodex, reach-arounds and ass-kissing to bigwigs, seminars and review service, making POs feel appreciated and smart (they are both), and keeping my ear to the tracks so I can get a heads-up about an approaching train (good or bad)."
    So, is it worth it?
    I can see what happened to the women (and, yes, I think it's interesting that they're women) who were profiled. They didn't do all these things. Which, basically, I translate as continuing to fight the battle, and never thinking that you've won it. That means a life that's constantly in battle mode.
    I think what happens to a number of people (and yes, they're disproportionally likely to be women) is that they just can't see it being worth it, to be constantly fighting a war.
    The question for society is whether having people constantly in battle mode produces the best science "provides the impetus for the middle-aged PI to recapture their youthful scientific vigor" or produces contentious, oversold, messes like gels that move to the wrong place.

  • neurlover says:

    Oh, and the nature editorial was (kind of) channeling PP
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v457/n7230/full/457635a.html
    They worry about the economic stimulus creating further boom/bust. PP suggested that he should be given the money (i.e. fully fund already funded grants). I don't really see how that prevents the boom/bust. I think the solution that needs to be considered for boom/bust problems is to stop funding so much training as a part of the research funding (i.e. graduate students and training post-docs) and to shift some of that money to "staff scientist" positions. I'm not sure such a shift would result in better science, but if we think the boom/bust is bad (as opposed to only giving lip service to it), I think it's the only solution.

  • TreeFish says:

    I don't think it has anything to do with them being women, per se. Things like that happen to guys, too!!!!!
    If you notice in the story, Rafael-Forntey (from my inference) repeatedly ignored the comments on the summary statements and pursued her own direction in spite of them. Plus, she waited until the -A2 to actually produce the mouse, which the summary statements said was imperative. Yes, she accurately called her situation a catch-22, but perhaps she could have pursued other avenues between the A0 and the A1 to fund making the mouse...and then submitting the mouse with the A1.
    Kelley, though brilliant, clearly enjoyed teaching and training undergraduates, perhaps at the expense of submitting another R01 application. Plus, she was in the middle of a terrible personal situation.
    All in all, these two stories are heartbreaking, but they provide at least two good lessons: (1) get and keep your shit together at all times; and (2) read, understand, address and incorporate the criticism in your summary statements. Despite your initial view as them being old white men beating you down, (most of the time) they are actually constructive criticism. When you address and incorporate the reviewers' comments, most of the time your scores will approach payline.
    Rafael-Fortney is brilliant, but I think perhaps she held a bit too strongly to her inner voice. There is nothing wrong with 'churn' science, particularly when done by brilliant people. Look at Rick Huganir-- he 'did the same methods and experiments' but with different proteins. Boring, huh? Nope. He defined the field of synaptic protein trafficking with these 'churn' experiments.
    Let's not infer that the story of these two scientists has anything to do with gender, because there are plenty of males and females going through the same experience. Let's try to figure out why this is happening case-by-case, and only then can we discuss overhauling peer review. Though far from perfect, I think it still does a damn good job.

  • neurolover says:

    "I don't think it has anything to do with them being women, per se. Things like that happen to guys, too!!!!!"
    I agree completely that things like that happen to guys, too. But, I disagree that the situation of the two women (including the fact that they are the ones who are willing to be publicly profiled) does have something to do with they're being women. Disproportionate impacts don't mean that men do not find themselves in the same binds.
    Rafael-Fortney was late into her pregnancy when one of the grants would have to be submitted. that, certainly, doesn't happen to guys, and having a heavily pregnant partner is not the same thing.
    DrDrA is a role model for how this doesn't have to something that happens only to women, and I am keeping everything crossed for her -- she's doing all the right things, and I can only hope that it will be enough.
    The women profiled in Nature probably did *not* do all the right things, but I don't know how much of that they could have changed (or would have wanted to change), if they could go back in time. The process that's being outlined here as the route to maximizing chances of success largely requires expanding one's work demands as necessary to keep fighting the war. That's simply not an option available to everyone, and yes, it is usually less available to women (and women are less likely to take it up).
    Oh, and didn't Science or Nature profile a man whose lab was closing, perhaps at Harvard? six months or so ago? I'm not at all trying to say that this only happens to women.

  • neurolover says:

    http://www.the-scientist.com/2008/5/1/32/1/
    From The Scientist, about Alan Schneyer. A bit more optimistic than the Nature article, but, also from May 2008, before the crash.

  • whimple says:

    It is always necessary to know what the funding agency is looking for.
    So long as you realize that at the NIH, the study section is the funding agency for all practical purposes.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    the study section is the funding agency for all practical purposes
    Not quite.
    Some of the ICs routinely reach down out of order of the priority scores to satisfy their views on what they want to see funded.
    Sometimes these priorities are very overt, such as with AIDS-related projects in recent years, things that comport with their recently issued positions statements / Council notes. Sometimes these priorities are rapidly changing and reflect talk around the campfire-such as when a Direct talks about new directions at a meeting.
    NIMH, as one example, has also been going in the opposite direction by dropping much of its traditional involvement with experimental psych, aka "basic behavioral science", projects regardless of scores assigned by bunny hopping study sections.

  • Perhaps a bit off-topic but consistent with, "I've seen the problem and it is us," is this pgh from the accompanying editorial:
    A number of resources have emerged in recent years to help young scientists start careers in and outside universities, including alternative-career clubs started by the students themselves. But these measures alone are not enough; doctoral programmes should build better career counselling and training into their curricula from the start. Reform-minded deans have long championed this change but faculty members have resisted, in part because they cling to the archaic prejudice ā€” implicit at times ā€” that students who leave academia are failures.

  • whimple says:

    The initial rounds of review really drive the engine on this one people. Get on study section. Speak up against the status quo with meaningful, well reasoned arguments. Go to bat for "risky" proposals if you really believe this is the best science. Resist being swayed by superstar reputations.
    I'll also add: set the bar higher for additional grants going to already-well-funded labs. I don't care if this practice is forbidden. The NIH doesn't have a money problem, it has a distribution of money problem.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I don't care if this practice is forbidden.
    You should. While you are perfectly free to use whatever internal standards you like on review panels, remember that to be effective you have to convince people to see things your way. And stepping over the explicit rules is not a good way to be persuasive.
    Now don't worry, you can still get the job done in other ways. Percent effort, attention paid to the project, coherent group focusing on these studies....the list goes on and on of ways you can talk about the successful conduct of the science (a key point) without coming out and saying the lab has too much funding.
    Now with that said, what is too much funding in your view?

  • Now with that said, what is too much funding in your view?

    More than I've got!

  • jake says:

    @#12: "I think the solution that needs to be considered for boom/bust problems is to stop funding so much training as a part of the research funding (i.e. graduate students and training post-docs) and to shift some of that money to "staff scientist" positions. I'm not sure such a shift would result in better science, but if we think the boom/bust is bad (as opposed to only giving lip service to it), I think it's the only solution."
    I agree. I think that if there were more 'staff scientist' positions, there will ultimately be better science produced. Running labs on only students and postdocs means a high turnover of the key personnel doing the technical work, and the level of skill of the personnel is always stuck at the not-very-experienced level. As soon as someone becomes highly skilled, they are gone and essentially 'replaced' by someone who knows nothing and needs to spend a couple years to reach their predecessor's level. that makes producing research results very inefficient. Why not take the people who already have years of experience and knowledge and training, and let THEM work as technical staff? This will solve a lot of problems, like PhDs leaving science because of nowhere to go (couldn't win the competition for faculty slots or were not interested in becoming faculty, yet no where else to employ their skills so 10+ years of postgraduate training is gone to waste).

  • whimple says:

    Now with that said, what is too much funding in your view?
    Who said anything about, "too much"? The issue is that well-funded superstar labs should be required to demonstrate economies of scale. Here's a fun example featured recently in Nature's "222 NIH grants: 22 researchers" blurb: http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080319/full/452258a/box/2.html:
    JOHN TAINER:
    5P01CA092584-08 Structural Cell Biology of DNA Repair Machines
    5R01AI022160-20 Structure and Assembly of Type IV Pili & Related Systems
    2R01CA097209-06A2 Structural Biochemistry of DNA Dealkylation
    5R01CA104660-05 Structural Biochemistry of RecQ Helicase Interactions
    5R01CA112093-03 Structural Biology of XPB and XPD Helicases
    5R01CA117638-04 Mre11/Rad50 Structural Biology for DNA Damage Responses
    5P01CA092584-089002 Structural Cell Biology Core
    Now, John Tainer is a crystallographer, and a really excellent one. Obviously, he's a superlative grant writer as well, since all his grants except one are funded on the first submission. That being said, does he need six different R01s for six different crystallography projects (plus a core facility)? The most difficult project of any of a series of related projects is always the FIRST one. Once you get all the equipment, techniques and a nucleus of competent people in place, you should be able to leverage these capabilities to subsequently do more with less.
    There's a diversity argument to be made too. While crystallography is an excellent thing, it's still just one thing. It's not smart to put so many dollars into one very specialized investigational niche, while letting three or four labs working on a diversity of topics fold up and die. How many John Tainer clones does the NIH really need to train anyway? Where are all the post-docs coming out of his lab going to go?

  • neurolover says:

    "As soon as someone becomes highly skilled, they are gone and essentially 'replaced' by someone who knows nothing and needs to spend a couple years to reach their predecessor's level"
    but, they work like their lives depended on it, 'cause, it does.

  • anonymous says:

    so what if they work like their lives depended on it? you are still playing catch-up every time your "senior personnel" leave and take their skills and knowledge with them, and are replaced by green and inexperienced ones. Lack of continuity in labs sets projects and timelines back and costs money (as new students break equipment or samples while learning and the experienced students and postdocs who no longer break equipment or samples are now gone). Quality of work means something, not just quantity of effort.
    of course the downside is that professional staff scientists cost more money as they need to be paid a higher salary than students and postdocs.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I am all in favor of the staff scientist track, which could be great for the PIs that hire them as well as for the trainees who follow this career path.
    Anonymous @#28 is correct, however -- The problem is that their salaries would increase linearly over time, eventually busting the budget of small-to-medium size labs. Center grants are good for picking up some of these types as core departmental resources, but a single PhD with, say 15-20 years seniority would eat up half your modular R01. Unless you want these staff scientists to be chronically underpaid or without benefits...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I have proposed that there could be salary support awards (K-like) specifically for career staff-scientist type roles. Although the individual would have to be in the grant game at least it would be a limited version.
    This would minimize the cost tradeoff decisions the PI would have to make if the career scientist were supported under a research grant award.
    It would also give a measure of independence and therefore protection against exploitation. Simultaneously it would actually free the PI to drop someone who wasn't productive because 1) they wouldn't necessarily be immediately out of a salary and 2) the PI couldn't be accused of just trying to reduce costs.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I think that could be a great idea. Take a chunk of the money currently devoted to F, T, and possibly even K awards and create a new mechanism (S for staff scientist?). Would they be portable to another institution with similar facilities, or would they be directly tied to the ongoing projects of a specific PI?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think of it as having to be associated with one or more NIH research award(s). The flexibility key being that it wouldn't matter (within the bounds say of a noncompeting review) which award so that a person could swap labs relatively seamlessly.
    Obviously changing institutions would be more difficult because of the way grants are administered. Basically it would have to be at the end of one noncompeting interval as you would do for switching institutions for R or F mechs at present.

  • Running labs on only students and postdocs means a high turnover of the key personnel doing the technical work, and the level of skill of the personnel is always stuck at the not-very-experienced level. As soon as someone becomes highly skilled, they are gone and essentially 'replaced' by someone who knows nothing and needs to spend a couple years to reach their predecessor's level. that makes producing research results very inefficient. Why not take the people who already have years of experience and knowledge and training, and let THEM work as technical staff?

    This is not how things work in my lab. The trainees in my lab are not expected to function as "technical staff". They are expected to function as creative scientists seeking training as a stepping stone to independent positions. I don't want "technical staff" in my lab: people who need to be told what to do and don't want to think independently as scientists.
    I had a post-doc sitting in my office today who is leaving soon, and we were discussing some of her work, and as we were talking about it--and she was demonstrating how grotesque the superficiality of her thinking was--I had the urge to stand up and shout, "You've been in my lab for five motherfucking years and you still can't carry on a satisfying discussion about your science?!?!?!?!?!? What the fucking fuck is wrong with you!?!?!?!?"
    She is technically outstanding, but she hasn't the faintest clue what her works means, why it is important, and how to move a project forward, let alone how to devise novel ideas and projects. I consider her a complete and utter failure as a trainee in my lab, and I have no desire whatsoever to populate my lab with "technical staff" like her.
    I try to populate my lab with eager creative young scientists who see my lab as a means to an end and who are constantly looking for something novel and exciting to do that will help them achieve their ends, not "technical staff" who want to sit at a bench or rig and mindlessly churn out data, no matter how good.

  • Chuckles says:

    Whoa, Physio. FIVE years you had that postdoc and still wanted to yell that? FIVE years? Was that accidentally bad training or was it a plan all along to waste so much of her life?

  • Yeah, it was my plan all along that she was going to be incapable of growing as a scientist, even after five years of training in my lab--the last three supported by an individual NRSA that she was awarded on the first submission. In fact, that's my plan for all my trainees: have them spend a year in my lab doing really well, apply for and obtain their own NRSAs, and then I intentionally stunt their growth as scientists and ruin their lives.

  • PPQ says:

    CPP, did you talk to her about her shortcomings or are you just releasing her into the wild now that the NRSA funding is up?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PPQ, I think you hit it right on the head.

  • whimple says:

    This is another reason to keep labs lean, but not starved, for funding. The more flush with cash labs get, the more disposable their personnel become.

  • CPP, did you talk to her about her shortcomings...?

    Of course not. The training program in my laboratory is based on the mentoring philosophy that having discussions with my trainees concerning the conduct of science and how to be a creative scientist is a complete waste of time. This is why my trainees are so successful at getting NRSAs: we are very explicit about this "discussion is a waste of time; trainees should shut up and churn out data" mentoring system in our Training Plan section of the applications.
    Here is an excerpt from the Summary Statement of our last NRSA application: "A particular strength of this post-doctoral NRSA application is the detailed Training Plan. The panel was especially impressed by the described mentoring philosophy, and agreed that trainee discussions with the mentor are a waste of time and that trainees should shut the fuck up and get back to the fucking bench."

  • PPQ says:

    Heh. The reason why I ask is because obviously you are not satisfied with this soon-to-be-former trainee's ability to get to generate enthusiasm and future directions from her work. I am curious why this remains the case if you have indeed talked about her shortcomings with her ad nauseam. Second, one's ability to garner an NRSA is not necessarily indicative of the training program. A lot of it has to do with "networking," which does not have anything to do with one's potential to be a productive, successful and creative scientist. I was just asking because I wondered what your strategies were to foster creativity.

  • The reason why I ask is because obviously you are not satisfied with this soon-to-be-former trainee's ability to get to generate enthusiasm and future directions from her work. I am curious why this remains the case if you have indeed talked about her shortcomings with her ad nauseam.

    Just like some people are incapable of running a three-hour marathon, some people tunr out to be incapable of developing into enthusiastic, self-directed, articulate, creative scientists.

  • neurolover says:

    "Just like some people are incapable of running a three-hour marathon, some people tunr out to be incapable of developing into enthusiastic, self-directed, articulate, creative scientists."
    OK, let's talk numbers -- how many trainees should a program like yours have (and you don't have to say how many trainees you have -- you can give us a ball park figure for your field). How many of them, statistically, after you've selected them, had them write NRSA's, and done your best to train them, are "incapable of becoming self directed scientists"?
    And, how many of the remaining ones will eventually have the chance to be self-directed scientists (i.e. PIs)?
    I'll say what I think -- I think these numbers don't work, unless we want to adapt a "tournament" model fo science where we train many, and very few succeed.

  • whimple says:

    Just like some people are incapable of running a three-hour marathon, some people tunr out to be incapable of developing into enthusiastic, self-directed, articulate, creative scientists.
    Why did it take you five years to figure this out?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Training postdocs ala CPPPhD!!!
    "Just like some people are incapable of running a three-hour marathon, some people tunr out to be incapable of developing into enthusiastic, self-directed, articulate, creative scientists", and that's why you keep postdocs like this one in your lab for five years. At least she was technically good and she had her own NRSA, which means that I didn't have to waste my own grant money on her, while getting the most out of her for my own benefit. Isn't that why we call postdoctoral labor "slave labor"? The hell with her wasted five years, I got what I needed from her. As I said before, "I don't give a flying f*** about her future!"

  • I'll say what I think -- I think these numbers don't work, unless we want to adapt a "tournament" model fo science where we train many, and very few succeed.

    What do you mean "want to adapt"? This is what we currently have, and it is why so many are pissed off.

    Why did it take you five years to figure this out?

    Where do you get the idea that it took me five years to figure this out?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "I had a post-doc sitting in my office today who is leaving soon, and we were discussing some of her work, and as we were talking about it--and she was demonstrating how grotesque the superficiality of her thinking was--I had the urge to stand up and shout, "You've been in my lab for five motherfucking years and you still can't carry on a satisfying discussion about your science?!?!?!?!?!? What the fucking fuck is wrong with you!?!?!?!?"
    Do five motherfucking years are different from five years?

  • pinus says:

    'A lot of it has to do with "networking," which does not have anything to do with one's potential to be a productive, successful and creative scientist'
    I do not agree with that statement. 'Networking' can expose you to ideas outside of your own realm of expertise, synergy man, it is more than a buzzword!

  • Do five motherfucking years are different from five years?

    C'mon, Fucklington. Call me a pottymouth. You know you want to. You can feel the obsessive pressure building and building and building inside you, and if you just call me a pottymouth you will obtain release.

  • Been There says:

    I have 3 questions for Comrade Physioprof:
    1) What do you think is the likely future course for this individual (the postdoc, not Sol)?
    2) If everything were right with "the system," what should happen to this postdoc?
    3) What does she think is in the cards for her future?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    CPPPhD,
    What the hell are you talking about? You have a postdoc being trained in your lab for 5 years. You claim that "she was demonstrating how grotesque the superficial her thinking was" in her discussion with you the other day. People wondering how such an examplary PI like yourself did not noticed for five years that this particular postdoc's understanding of her science is grotesque and superficial. You responded by "Where do you get the idea that it took me five years to figure this out?", which means that you knew those facts for sometime, yet you kept her for five f****** years. I guess that you kept her for your own benefit, since she is, technically, excellent i.e., she has been cheap labor and you have used her.
    Kapisch? Nothing to do with your foulmouth; everything to do with your speaking from both sides of your mouth, potty or not!!!!!!!!

  • (1) What do you think is the likely future course for this individual (the postdoc, not Sol)?
    (2) If everything were right with "the system," what should happen to this postdoc?
    (3) What does she think is in the cards for her future?

    (1) She has a number of options, which include becoming a lab manager/super technician/research scientist in the laboratory of someone who chooses to have such personnel, or taking a position in an industrial laboratory (although current economic conditions make the latter difficult).
    (2) I take no position here on what "the system" would be like if it were "right".
    (3) She thinks she will either do one of the things listed in #1, or seek some sort of professional degree and leverage off of her scientific training in a different profession.

  • mouth, potty

    C'mon, Fucklington. You know you want to say it. It'll feel so good. It'll be just like when you were a little boy and your mommy got mad at you.

  • neurolover says:

    "I'll say what I think -- I think these numbers don't work, unless we want to adapt a "tournament" model fo science where we train many, and very few succeed."
    Yeah, I should have said adopt it psychologically -- I agree that it already is a tournament model. I don't think the students/trainees realize this, though. I think there's an incentive for everyone to hide it.
    I think trainees need to know the numbers (in the lab, university, and field). Then, if they still go for it, that's their choice.
    Oh, and when I say tournament model, I don't mean a model where only the very best and brightest succeed. I also mean one with a strong element of chance in it. So, maybe I really mean a poker tournament?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    CPPPhD, and you talk about my obsession? You are so obsessed with me that every time you see my name you think I'm talking about you and your foulmouth. Get over it! after all, it is your mouth and I am not the one that smells it. The stanch does not travel that far. And you're still ignoring the point that several commenters here posed to you, which is, why did you let this postdoc spent such a long time in your lab if you knew that she is not a PI material?

  • Chuckles says:

    Physio, your remonstrations regarding your postdoc's abilities are completely beside the point. Her failings are your failings. As her postdoctoral training supervisor, it was your job to make sure her thinking got beyond 'superficial'. You had plenty of time to do it. In your portion of her NRSA application, you presumably promised to do it. Granted, some people do not have the intellectual wherewithal or motivation for a successful career in science. But it is tough to believe you did anything but use her for her technical abilities and then toss her aside as her worth waned, given the insulting things you said about her above. Instead of mourning the loss of another woman from the pipeline, you wrote of her with obvious disgust.
    I honestly feel sorry for your trainees. And I am shocked that you feel comfortable giving career advice here. Fuck you.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Well, maybe Chuckles will persuade our bully PI that it is his (ab)use of his postdoc for five years that has raisesd eyebrows here, not his pottymouth.

  • Anonymous says:

    Well, without knowing all the facts about CPP's postdoc, this comment is basically worthless, but if I'm happy to run Sol down when he looks an ass, I ought to throw in my 2c when he doesn't.
    So, just this once, I think you're pretty much right, Sol.
    And this...
    I try to populate my lab with eager creative young scientists who see my lab as a means to an end and who are constantly looking for something novel and exciting to do that will help them achieve their ends, not "technical staff" who want to sit at a bench or rig and mindlessly churn out data, no matter how good.
    ...sounds just a bit too alpha male.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Anonymous, it could be that the only difference between you and me has been the speed by which we uncovered the real alpha male behind the mouth.

  • BugDoc says:

    In defense of PhysioProf, there are some people that just can't be brought to think beyond their own boundaries, no matter how much mentoring they get. It's easy to say that once you've figured this out in Yr 2, you should ask this person to leave, but most of us are optimistic enough to think that with a little more time, a little more maturity and a lot more mentoring, these postdocs can become strong scientists. The PI should provide interesting ideas, a strong training environment and mentorship, but ultimately, trainees have to take some responsibility for becoming good scientists themselves.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    BugDoc, good try. The laid back, the lazy, the limited, the lagging behind, the low enthusiastic ones, they do not require more than a few months to be recognized. I had a postdoc who fit at least one of these descriptions. After one year I gave him several choices:
    a. Continue in my lab as a technician;
    b. find yourself a teaching position, maybe in a community college;
    c. try another postdoctoral position elsewhere, but without my blessing.
    He took option b.

  • Chuckles says:

    To build on S. Rivlin's point: Failing to mentor someone unsuccessfully and regretting it is one thing, BugDoc, but failing to successfully mentor someone and then writing about them the way Comrade PhysioProf did is another. It suggests to me that a significant part of the problem was Comrade PhysioProf's attitude toward his mentee. I wouldn't feel motivated or interested either if my PI hated me.

  • Alex says:

    Sol,
    Regarding option b: Certainly there are many people who are just not really inclined toward a research-intensive university career but could be great teachers. Many people should be encouraged to consider this as a respectable path in academia, as I am doing. However, I am reluctant to think of this as a path just for those who can't cut it as postdocs.
    1) This path is not easy. It has certain advantages over the life of a prof at a research-intensive university, but it isn't easy. And because there are way more Ph.D.'s than academic jobs, even a job at a teaching-oriented institution will be competitive as hell hell to apply for.
    If the person is doing poorly as a postdoc because his heart just isn't in it, but he's still a smart person with a good work ethic (just not a lot of motivation for the postdoc path) and he likes teaching, then this may be the job for him. However, if the person is just not intelligent, curious, or motivated in general, then this path will work out just as poorly as postdocing. Where to send that person? I dunno. Somewhere other than my school.
    2) Even undergraduate institutions want research (unless they're community colleges). Student involvement in research is important for them (your next grad student might write his/her first paper on a project done with somebody like me), and being on top of the latest advances is important for the curriculum. You don't have to run the most cutting edge lab here, but you should be working on a problem important enough that you can take your results to a professional society meeting and be proud to show what you found.

  • anon says:

    CPP @ #31: why do you think that all 'technical staff" have to be mindless drones or mere technicians? PhDs with many years postdoctoral training, IME, make the best technical staff BECAUSE they are independent and creative and on top of that, experienced. Furthermore without the administrative burdens/distractions that faculty are saddled with, they are free to employ all their intellectual energies directly on the science at hand. Unfortunately they need to be paid what they are worth which is why there are relatively few career staff scientist positions in academia. unless institutions start providing hard salaried positions for these uber-scientists, it will continue to be an untenable career.

  • neurolover says:

    "why do you think that all 'technical staff" have to be mindless drones or mere technicians?"
    Yeah, the characterization of the "staff scientist" position as mindless drones was something that slipped by me. The point of such a position is that it's supposed to be a spot for creative, independent, scientists who don't want to fight in the war for funding, who can't work 80 hours a week, or don't want to, scientists who can't move anywhere there's a job for them. And, we're arguing that science will benefit from keeping these individual in the field, and that the lab will benefit from the continuity and training they offer to the group.
    (I'm troubled, too, by the posting of personal evaluations of an individual, who some must be able to identify -- this forum is not completely anonymous. And, PP identified her as a woman, which means it taints all the women in his lab, if anyone ever decodes who PP is).

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Alex, I never said anything against teaching and its ranking compared to research. As a teacher myself, I find research to be less demanding and stressing than teaching.
    anon, I am with you on the advantage the technical scientist has over the one who only uses his brain, but has no technical abilities. I was the most lucky person to collaborate for many years with a genius physiologist and a physicisist, who is also an electronic engineer, a computer wiz and the best technical person I have ever met. Every hour I ever spent with him was an exciting experience in pure science. Unfortunately, the mediocre scientific system of today cannot accomodate the genius scientists. It is a waste of brain and time to expect them to apply for grant money instead of allowing them to roam in whatever direction their minds take them.
    neurolover, no need to peel off CPP's musk. He has already exposed his real face!

  • I'm with BugDoc. I don't run a lab, but I've paid a lot of attention to the graduate students who go through my program. Some you can ID at the start as winners--people who will do great, creative science even if you lock them in a closet with peeling paint for five years. Others you can write off from the beginning.
    But there's a big middle ground, and within that ground it's so hard to tell who will finally really chomp into the science, and who will take a few ineffective nibbles at the apple, appear to be ready to bite, and then drift off. Especially some students--I keep expecting them to eventually dig in, but they just don't. And it can take several years to figure this out.
    Also I would point out that CPP routinely refers to anonymous people in his anecdotes as "she" as a nice way of combating the default-he-gender problem. Don't read anything into it.

  • An anonymous reader says:

    Do we really need to psychoanalyze Comrade PhysioProf? It doesn't matter whether the postdoc was a man or a woman, or whether PhysioProf abused the NRSA*. Ultimately, every scientist must bear some of the responsibility for her own failure (or some of the credit for her success). A supervisor can only be expected to give advice -- not exert mind control. People are not puppets; they don't always dance the way we hope they would when we pull certain strings.
    That said, it would obviously be wise for Comrade PhysioProf to be more proactive with regard to at-risk employees in his lab, and more circumspect when writing about them here.
    *Well, actually it does, but I am tired of reading all the stupid arguments about gender pipelines and grant money abuse that have dominated this forum lately. Hopefully DrugMonkey's fawning phase will pass soon too.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    We surely do not need to psychoanalyze CPPPhD, but I can recommend a really good psychiatrist if so desired. šŸ˜‰

  • it would obviously be wise for Comrade PhysioProf to be more proactive with regard to at-risk employees in his lab

    Absolutely no evidence has been presented one way or the other concerning how proactive Comrade PhysioProf is with trainees in his lab.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Q: "CPP, did you talk to her about her shortcomings...?"
    A: "Of course not! ...trainee discussions with the mentor are a waste of time. [They] should shut the fuck up and get back to the fucking bench."
    A very proactive approach to training postdocs.

  • An anonymous reader says:

    "Absolutely no evidence has been presented one way or the other concerning how proactive Comrade PhysioProf is with trainees in his lab."
    With all due respect, Comrade, if you were proactive with your trainees then you would not have been shocked or frustrated by the fact that your postdoc's thinking was 'superficial' -- especially after five years. As you must surely know, five years is FOREVER when it comes to postdoctoral training. If a trainee is not clearly 'on track' by then, she likely never will be. A proactive mentor would have already steered your postdoc out of science, or (better yet) raised her standard of thinking long before.
    Fortunately for you, some of us here ARE being proactive with regard to your training as a mentor. Start listening.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Start listening? Bullies do not listen except to themselves!!!

  • Nick says:

    it is true that not all postdocs are PI-material, and not all postdocs even want to become PIs. Some of them are doing the postdoc to figure themselves out (whether they want to go into science for a career or not) or to learn new skills to go into industry later on, or may aspire to do more teaching.
    It sounds like PP's postdoc is one such person who is not PI-material. That may or may not be PP's fault. You can't change people fundamentally. However, for a mentor to be so disgusted at their mentee because he/she did noto fit the mold of what the mentor wanted them to be, is what I see as PP's failing as a postdoc advisor. As he admitted, she was technically excellent, she just didn't have a PI mindset. so what, that does not make her a failure in life. She may very well end up working in industry making twice what you are or she may go into administration or policy and someday be giving YOU funding.
    It is this complete disgust with a mentee that I find disturbing. I would not want to work for a 'mentor' who had so little regard for anyone who doesn't present a mirror image of himself. And I would not want to become like that as a mentor myself.

  • Alex says:

    So, as I understand it, this postdoc has a lot of technical skill, but lacks a certain mindset. So, a skilled and talented person, just not talented in a particular area. And this person disgusts you? Is cloning the primary purpose of scientific training?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    One also needs to question all those advices CPP is providing on this blog regarding NIH funding, postdoc training, etc, etc. Many compliments were dished out on the value of these advices. On another blogger's blog CPP also provided advice on how to stay happy in one's marriage, while putting significant amount of time in science or other professional endeavors. The readers of this blog have been led to believe that all these advices are based mainly on personal experience, which is responsible to CPP's success as a PI, a mentor and a husband. CPP's comment (#31) raises certain doubts regarding the authenticity of his advices and his honesty when he dishes them out. Not less disturbing was his response to my raising questions about the real reasons for him keeping a postdoc for 5 years when said postdoc has exhibited grotesque and superficial scientific thinking. CPP, the bully that he is, attacked me as if I was criticizing his pottymouth and threatened to block my participation in the discussion.
    Now, CPP's advices could still be good ones however, when given by a pretender, they should be taken with a grain of salt. I am sure that Mr. Madoff is capable of giving financial advice, but who would listen to him now?

  • crystaldoc says:

    Q for CPP, off on a tangent from the direction this discussion(?) has veered: It sounds like your mentees have had considerable success competing for NRSAs. As others have noted, these are often a "rich get richer" mechanism as mentor qualifications include substantial funding and a record of having trained successful scientists. I was under the impression that you CPP are relatively early career-- 5-7 years into independent position-- but doing well with a couple of R01s-- is that right? So the real questions: at what stage in your career did you beging to encourage or require trainees to write NRSAs? At what point did these applications become successful? And what were the key elements of training plan (for real) and mentor qualifications sections that you believe were critical in the success of these applications? Despite sometimes sounding like an ass, I know some of us newer PIs can learn a lot from your example.

  • So the real questions: at what stage in your career did you beging to encourage or require trainees to write NRSAs? At what point did these applications become successful? And what were the key elements of training plan (for real) and mentor qualifications sections that you believe were critical in the success of these applications?

    The moment I had the first post-doc in my lab who was eligible to apply for an NRSA, I encouraged him to write one. This was about one year after I started my lab. This first NRSA application from my lab was successful, and was awarded before we even received our first R01. Incidentally, this was my experience as a post-doc myself as well in a very young lab: my NRSA was awarded before my mentor received her first R01 (several years before, as it turned out; she is a poor grant writer).
    In terms of the key elements of the training plan, we explained that we would have at least weekly one-on-one meetings between mentor and trainee in which we would discuss experimental design, data analysis, troubleshooting, figure preparation, writing, and delivery of presentations. It is also important to include aspects of the training environment beyond the lab of the PI, such as departmental/interdepartmental contexts such as journal clubs, research in progress meetings, etc. It is very important to also emphasize that the actual methodological and conceptual scientific content of the training represents a genuinely new direction for the trainee, and one that complements her pre-existing training and puts her in a better position to achieve scientific independence.
    And regardless of all the hand-wringing about how PIs are TEH EVUL for not helping their trainees figure out about career paths other than ultimate PIhood, all of the NIH's training and education funding programs are explicitly directed at this goal. Also in relation to this hand-wringing, it would be malpractice for PIs to provide this kind of advice, since by definition they don't know jack diddly fucking shit about it given their own career pathway that did ultimately end in PIhood. The people who should be providing "alternate career" advice are the ones who have alternate careers, not me.
    In terms of the qualifications of the PI, the review panels of these early NRSAs from my lab did point out my juniorness--and in that first one, the absence of R01 funding in the lab--but balanced that with my proven scientific accomplishments, the comprehensiveness of the training plan, and the existence of sufficient non-R01 funding to support the proposed research at the time.

  • An anonymous reader says:

    Thanks, crystaldoc, for getting things back on track, and thanks, Comrade, for the informative reply to cystaldoc's question.
    What I liked about your post (#75), Comrade, was that you shared your experience in a thoughtful way while minimizing the sort of 'Word of God' tone that is common among bloggers and which typically belies superficial authority. I also liked that the profanity was kept to a minimum. You sounded more like an adult, and less like a desperate-to-be-cool thirteen year old.

  • Alex says:

    The people who should be providing "alternate career" advice are the ones who have alternate careers, not me.
    On that I agree with you 100%. Although, as an academic, I could at least encourage somebody who seems to be headed in a different direction to look in that direction.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    and you might tell them to look here:
    http://alternative-scientist.blogspot.com/

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "The people who should be providing "alternate career" advice are the ones who have alternate careers, not me."
    What a crock of shit!!! CPP, in essence, is saying: "I have a technically outstanding postdoc in my lab who won't make it in the PIhood, so she's clearly better off finding an alternative career. But I am an idiot where alternative careers are concerned, thus, I'll just keep her for five MF years and let her figure it out for herself. Of course, I'll replace her with a better postdoc when one knocks on my door, but until then, she is my best technician."

  • whimple says:

    The people who should be providing "alternate career" advice are the ones who have alternate careers, not me.
    90%+ of your trainees are destined for "alternate careers". Do you consider these people "acceptable losses"?

  • What I liked about your post (#75), Comrade, was that you shared your experience in a thoughtful way while minimizing the sort of 'Word of God' tone that is common among bloggers and which typically belies superficial authority. I also liked that the profanity was kept to a minimum. You sounded more like an adult, and less like a desperate-to-be-cool thirteen year old.

    Am I supposed to give a flying fuck what some anonymous asshole on the Internet "likes"?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    An anonymous reader,
    I wanted to warn you in advance about a possible response to your comment of the kind just posted by CPP (#81). Clearly it is too late now.
    Nevertheless, as you can witness here, CPP's responses are very selective. He has chosen not to answer the real tough questions and instead is attacking anyone who dare commenting about his profanity.

  • What I liked about your post (#75), Comrade, was that you shared your experience in a thoughtful way while minimizing the sort of 'Word of God' tone that is common among bloggers and which typically belies superficial authority. I also liked that the profanity was kept to a minimum. You sounded more like an adult, and less like a desperate-to-be-cool thirteen year old.

    When Dr. Isis writes it is literally the word of God. That's because I speak to him and then take dictation for my posts. People should regard it as such.
    Fucking fuck.

  • an anonymous reader? says:

    Am I supposed to give a flying fuck what some anonymous asshole on the Internet "likes"?
    Good question, Comrade. But it's probably unwise of you to question the Seed Scienceblogs business plan here.
    [DM edit- I'm entirely uninterested in having the assklownery regarding anonymity perpetuated on this blog, unless we are specifically discussing the topic. As someone once observed, "Behave with that in mind."]

  • S. Rivlin says:

    an anonymous reader?,
    Psuedonymity has been discussed here and on other Sciblogs recently. Whether you agree with one's choice to remain anonymous or not, you would hopefully respect that choice.
    Isis, is #83 the only contribution you going to make to the discussion here, especially when CPP, in an unguarded moment, revealed how he has treats a woman postdoc in his lab? You, who continuously singing his praises and see him as the next best thing to happens to women scientists in academia right behind you; are you going to stay mum and ignore it? Despite our differences, I have always held you in high regard, especially on this very issue. I believe you need to make your voice heard here regarding the use of a woman postdoc in CPP's lab for five MF years.

  • an anonymous reader says:

    [DM edit- I'm entirely uninterested in having the assklownery regarding anonymity perpetuated on this blog, unless we are specifically discussing the topic. As someone once observed, "Behave with that in mind."]

  • Sol, I thank you for the invitation to join this thread, but I had never really considered this as a feminist issue. As has been noted by others in the thread, CPP frequently uses what he identifies as the gender-neutral "she." I don't see any evidence that CPP has treated this individual any differently than he would treat a male postdoc, if indeed this person he refers to is female.
    All of that said, I really cannot speak to how he treats his postdocs, or the opportunities he offers them, because I have not had the occasion to interact with him professionally. I have no idea where this postdoc began in terms of professional abilities or how she has progressed. I would also say that neither can the few of you that continue to troll him on this thread and it is not productive. All that we know is that someone spent time in his laboratory and that, at the end of the day, CPP believes this person will not be a successful independent invevstigator.
    I have hired junior staff in my career that I thought showed promise only to find that they were not as well-suited as I believed. My fault? Theirs? Who can tell from that single statement.
    At the end of the day, CPP gives me no reason to believe that he is not an advocate for the advancement of women and minorities in science. He has been open to engaging in said dialogues in the past and I value his insights.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    an anonymous reader, I fully agree with you there.
    Isis, I guess that using a male postdoc for five years for his technical excellence is then OK with you, but not if this postdoc is a woman. What is surprising me, Isis, is the fact that you, depite knowing nothing about me, have many times voiced your strong opinion of who I am based on a single comment of mine. I suggest that you read CPP's comment again and then, maybe you could comment on it while pretending that I am the one who made it.
    Here it is:
    I had a post-doc sitting in my office today who is leaving soon, and we were discussing some of her work, and as we were talking about it--and she was demonstrating how grotesque the superficiality of her thinking was--I had the urge to stand up and shout, "You've been in my lab for five motherfucking years and you still can't carry on a satisfying discussion about your science?!?!?!?!?!? What the fucking fuck is wrong with you!?!?!?!?"

  • DrugMonkey says:

    As an additional data point I have felt the same response to trainees on occasion. Maybe not the same details but certainly a disbelieving frustration that said individual is not progressing as a scientist despite my best mentoring efforts. Efforts that have allowed other individuals to progress. The fact that I have such fleeting thoughts does not mean that I do anything other than my best to move forward with the person from whatever place we are in the mentoring relationship.
    PIs are not magicians and some people train in this business who are simply not going to move past certain points for a variety of reasons. The notion that a "good" mentor can make just anybody into a successful independent scientist is total crap and anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous or has not trained anything like a representative sample.
    Opinions vary on when you should boot someone off the career path. Sol apparently thinks if a trainee is not showing promise in a year or two the PI should have "The Talk". If my mentors had taken that approach I would have never reached the position I am in today. Thus, I don't express Sol's variety of arrogant, paternalistic mentoring but rather would prefer to extend struggling trainees a lot of consideration and second chances to kick into gear. Maybe I'm just a softie...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, of course one should expect a mentor to allow his mentee to have a second and a third chance to progress and improve. However, if a mentor notices problems with the mentee that could hinder said mentee's becoming an independent investigator, the "talk" has to occur at an earlier stage than after five years, especially when it is clear in our present case that even at five year time the mentor still hasn't had the "talk" with said mentee, only the thoughts. My mentors all had "talks" with me that really shook me to straighten up and get on with the program. Their examples taught me that you must have the "talk" early, such that you won't find yourself in the situation CPP found himself with his mentee.

  • Chuckles says:

    Comrade PhysioProf writes something totally demeaning about his female trainee, and you defend that, Drug Monkey?
    Et tu, Isis?

  • especially when it is clear in our present case that even at five year time the mentor still hasn't had the "talk" with said mentee, only the thoughts.

    There is absolutely no evidence available to you concerning what "talks" have occurred between the mentor and the trainee, nor when they have occurred.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Notice thar CPP also took an utterly gratuitous slam at his postdoc mentor @#75 above:

    my NRSA was awarded before my mentor received her first R01 (several years before, as it turned out; she is a poor grant writer)

    Was this also just a random use of the feminine pronoun?

  • Dave says:

    Hey -- I thought *I* was the honorary misogynist here!

  • Those of you who say this postdoc should have been kicked to the curb earlier: perhaps s/he had recognized there wasn't a future in academia, but did not want to leave the postdoc? (Wanting to finish up some work for a sense of accomplishment at the end? Needing some time to come up with a Plan B? Hell, even enjoying the lab and the people in it? Who knows?)
    Maybe CPP treated this person like dirt, maybe not, but I don't think anyone can claim to know from his comment about frustration with a mentee. I've been frustrated just like this with junior grad students, even (perhaps particularly) the ones I really like and try my best to help. Sometimes there's only so much a mentor can do, and it sure is frustrating when you genuinely want to see someone succeed but they don't/won't/can't.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    What is so amazing here is the slack that so many apologists are willing to give this bully (CPP) who never gives even the smallest slack to anyone who voices a different opinion than his.
    Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde, since when the postdoc is the one to determine how long she is to be employed by a mentor who knows that she is not a PI material? And since when a mentor is willing to keep a mentee for five years knowing that she is not a PI material?
    Look, CPP is trying for two days now to wiggle his way out of the trap he put himself in, posting all kinds of BS responses. Like all bullies, when the time is up to show real courage and come out clean, he shows none.

  • anon says:

    S. Rivlin,
    Give it up. This blog is one big reach-around between 3-4 fellow bloggers. To all those reading these pages looking for real advice: Look elsewhere.

  • Another biomedical researcher says:

    The postdoc is highly technically competent (good hands, effective with techniques), entered a research area significantly different from their graduate work, and clearly has the native intelligence to write a compelling NRSA. So they clearly have a lot of potential, but may need some extra time to become a highly effective researcher in the field. They need some extra time to really get into the background of the field. And they got the NRSA, so they have afforded themself the time to grow through the full learning curve of the field.
    This seems to be exactly the situation in which a student might continue on for awhile as a postdoc. A highly effective mentor, recognizing the potential and capabilities of a student, might give them the opportunity to struggle a bit with the intellectual challenges in learning and becoming engaged in a new field. Why boot someone who is so capable and has so much potential out of the lab? It may take them some time to grow into a field. If you're an effective mentor, you will take on many students and postdocs from diverse areas, for cross-fertilization of ideas and to give talented people new opportunities. If you're always taking people from exactly your field, that would indicate that you are not interested in mentorship but are only interested in hands. Which, I will note, is the opposite of what CPP did.
    This situation often works out extremely well for all involved. They take the opportunity and really grow with the situation, become experts in their new field and intellectual leaders in the group. (And many of these people move on to industry (actually, that's true for all postdocs in this class from my group), where they then have the capability to synthesize ideas from multiple inputs and grow the science in their companies, and indeed have to think independently to be successful.) I have had several highly successful postdocs from my group who have followed this model. It wasn't always easy, there were periods of struggles on several levels, periods where you though it might not work out, but when the postdocs make the intellectual leap and show leadership in their new field, it is highly rewarding for a mentor.
    And then you have a postdoc from a similar background, and even more accomplished based on his graduate publication record and breadth of science (but again, in a different area). They accomplish relatively significantly in a technical sense. And yet, despite many meetings, group meetings, talks, external poster presentations, journal clubs, etc. where they have the opportunity to talk about their science and put in within a broader context (and are challenged to do so), they show no willingness to be intellectually engaged with the goals of the project, to the point that they cannot competently explain even previous papers from the group, except in an introduction sense using buzz phrases that show superficial knowledge that disappears once you actually ask a question. They can't explain highly related precedent and current work in the field. And thus, they aren't able to direct their own work in the sense that since they don't really know why they're doing what they're doing, or how it relates to the field. That in the end is on the individual trainee. It's incredibly frustrating as a PI to put in all that effort, in many different ways, to give someone the opportunities, repeatedly thinking "well, it's just going to take some more time before it really clicks", and slowly coming to the realization that it's apparently not going to click, because in the end they're not even willing to put in the effort to understand the basics of what they're doing. A realization that you always mentally resist coming to because of your desire to see your people succeed and your incredibly positive nature about human potential, in particular the potential of somebody you have spent so much time with.
    And in the end, it's crushing to the advisor and one of the absolute biggest sources of stress for a PI. And yes, it makes you really, really, really want to swear, which you thankfully have the sense to do in complaints to understanding colleagues with similar frustrations and far away from your students.

  • Another biomedical researcher says:

    And to those who those who don't understand CPP's frustration (in #31 note that he said "had the urge to stand up..."), I either am happy for you that you've been extremely lucky in all of your trainees that all have been fully motivated, or you aren't yet in a PI position and I feel empathy for you when this frustration will overcome you for the first time later in your career. It sucks, you never think it will happen (because you're used to being around highly motivated individuals), and it's exceptionally painful to the PI when it does, because it's not what you want for your students.
    And then you have to figure out how you'll help this person find a good job consistent with their abilities and motivation.

  • Harley says:

    By choosing to be a mentor, you take on certain responsibilities to your mentees. Being a mentor means having your mentee's interests at heart, not just your own. No matter how 'bad' a mentee turns out to be, how disappointed you are that your investment in them failed to bear the fruit you wanted, becoming frustrated at them to the point of disgust is poor form. If you cannot accept people's shortcomings with empathy, and if you expect every 'investment' you make in every mentee to pay off otherwise you can't handle it without being upset and resort to blaming them, then get out of the mentoring business and just be a regular boss or manager.

  • Seriously, "Harley?" This thread has become utterly laughable.

  • Mike_F says:

    Harley - A mentor is not a psychiatrist and a trainee is not a patient. Expressing frustration when "an investment did not bear fruit" is simply being human. C'e la vie.

  • Becca says:

    Wow, this thread got depressing.
    What really seems to be missing from this discussion is powerful self-reflection on the part of CPP. I understand the frustration with not being able to effectively mentor someone. I understand that not everyone will "make it" for a certain type of career path. What I don't understand is why so little information was given as to what the postdoc wants; what her goals/ambitions are. Or why so little information was given along the lines of "this is what I think I did right with her, this is what I could have done better." from CPP.
    How are mentors supposed to learn from each other if no one ever admits to failing, or processes that failure as anything other than a fleeting (and repressed) frustration of annoyed failure?
    "all of the NIH's training and education funding programs are explicitly directed at this goal [PIhood]."
    Oh really? Do you honestly believe a technically competent postdoc capable of winning an NRSA couldn't be a good independent scientist of some sort? Keep in mind, not all independent scientists are academic team-leader PIs. Also keep in mind, there is no rule in the NRSA that says you have to be a PI. No, the term used is "independent researcher"... shocking how NIH wouldn't rule-out staff-scientist positions at say, NIH.
    And truthfully, if you, as a PI don't have some contacts in industry to get drugs, or in publishing to get glamormag pubs, or in NIH from back in the day... you probably aren't doing your job as a PI. Advisors in academia usually have a lot more ability to help with the toughest part- the networking- of 'alternative career placement' than they give themselves credit for.
    So, CPP, either you help her find a job, or you admit you can't be arsed.

  • Alex says:

    I don't think a mentor has to be a psychiatrist. Nor do I think a mentor should offer half-assed advice on career paths that he/she has little knowledge of.
    I just think that if a mentor sees a skilled person bound for some path other than PI, the mentor should try to feel some emotion other than disgust. Yes, it always sucks when you failed to achieve the result that you were aiming for, but there are different degrees of failure. The grad student who never finishes and winds up in some crappy and unsatisfying job is one type of mentoring failure. The technically skilled postdoc who goes into some skilled job other than PI is a completely different type of mentoring "failure", and the overall situation is still quite positive.
    Most people in science are going to "leak" from the "pipeline" (males and females alike) because there are far fewer PI positions than there are PIs. I realize that part of the PI's job is to train PIs, but try to have at least some sort of respectful attitude when you see a skilled person who doesn't become a PI.

  • qaz says:

    Becca #103 wrote:

    "all of the NIH's training and education funding programs are explicitly directed at this goal [PIhood]."
    Oh really? Do you honestly believe a technically competent postdoc capable of winning an NRSA couldn't be a good independent scientist of some sort? Keep in mind, not all independent scientists are academic team-leader PIs. Also keep in mind, there is no rule in the NRSA that says you have to be a PI. No, the term used is "independent researcher"... shocking how NIH wouldn't rule-out staff-scientist positions at say, NIH.
    We need to differentiate what we (as individuals posting on this and other blogs) believe and what NIH does. While I agree whole-heartedly that the stress on the concept of PI as the only successful career-choice is both short-sighted, unpleasant, and over-all wrong-headed, I need to point out that NRSA study sections have as their primary goal to give NRSAs to those they believe are future PIs. A faculty member who has had students go off to be PIs at major (i.e. research-heavy) universities is a "successful mentor" and much more likely to get its students NRSAs than a PI who has had students go off to be technicians, or to industry. (An independent research at NIH is basically a full-fledged PI.) Note - I am not defending this definition of "successful mentor". I have argued against it at NRSA study sections. But it is still the definition used in the study sections I have seen.
    PS. I am surprised that CPP was able to get his student an NRSA without his own R01. On the study section I am on, that is almost impossible. (I have seen it maybe twice over the last several years.) What I have seen a lot of success is that the junior PI co-mentors the post-doc-to-be along with a senior PI who has lots of "successful mentoring" experience (see above for definitions).

  • Harley says:

    Mike_F Harley - A mentor is not a psychiatrist and a trainee is not a patient. Expressing frustration when "an investment did not bear fruit" is simply being human. C'e la vie.
    No it is not. The fact that a so-called "mentor" is frustrated and upset and disgusted because a mentee didn't turn out the way he wanted even though said mentee was excellent in other very relevant areas, shows a certain mindset.
    Being a PI requires a certain mindset that not all postdocs have. Similarly, being a mentor requires a certain mindset that also is apparently lacking in a lot of PIs.

  • Katie says:

    mouth, potty
    C'mon, Fucklington. You know you want to say it. It'll feel so good. It'll be just like when you were a little boy and your mommy got mad at you.
    I love CPP. And I wish he were my advisor. That is all.

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