Minions

Jan 08 2016 Published by under Careerism

I don't care what stage of the doctoral arc you inhabit, having science minions helps move your science forward.

The more minions, the better, assuming you have the resources available to fill their time productively.

If you don't want moar data than you can generate with your own two hands, this is not the right career for you.

53 responses so far

  • odyssey says:

    Self-evident, no?

  • Grumble says:

    Self-evident, but some newbie PI types think they'll still get to do bench work. Most then find it inadvisable or impossible, and switch into "accumulate as many minions as possible" mode.

  • gmp says:

    Every so often, I will have a minion who will come tell me that I don't do real research any more (meaning I am not in the trenches). Because I am obviously just a parasite who spends all her time teaching, writing grants, trouble-shooting with each one of the studnets, editing all of their papers and conference abstracts, sitting in group and collaborative meetings, reviewing what sometimes feels the papers and proposals of everyone on earth, and we haven't even touched on any of the society-level or department and university service... Instead of writing code. Which they can do and feel self-righteous about because I was a useless non-scientist enough to have project ideas, write them up, and get them funded.

    When a youngling (every few years I have one) comes to tell me I don't really do research (maybe only us womenfolk get presented with these gems, I have heard the same complaint from a few women faculty but not men) I get angry but a little ashamed, because yeah I don't do the grunt work any more. But OTOH it's pointless to justify my existence and the value of my job to a minion who has decided they they are not going to care.

  • Philapodia says:

    I've found that I enjoy having a student/post-doc do an experiment and having the data magically appear in my e-mail some time later much more than doing the experiment myself. By not having to deal with the niggly details of the experiment (if it works, that is) I get to think about the science at a much higher level than I would otherwise and can put things in a broader context for myself and for the lab than if I did the experiment myself. I gave up my bench a few years ago, and it was one of the more productive things I have done for my lab.

  • Philapodia says:

    @GMP

    Why feel ashamed? You are the leader of your group, and as such your job is different than the minions. How many CEOs do you see scrubbing toilets? When they give you crap for not being a "real scientist" anymore, remind them that they couldn't do their science without you and that you could crush their pathetic little "careers" like a bug if you wanted.

  • dr24hours says:

    What do you mean by "career"? If biomed academics, well, I don't know, but I'll accept it. But "Professor in academia"? Some relatively solitary research is perfectly ordinary and there are lots of careers that provide it.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Self-evident, no?

    It's a subtweet from a conversation last night. See here

  • Dusanbe says:

    This specifically refers to grad students or postdocs who rely on others to do experiments/collect data. PIs are exempt from accusations of minion hoarding.

  • Minion says:

    I wish I was at that level already 🙂
    Would be much more fun to just talk about what calculation we should do and which simulations to run and then have someone else go and actually do them!

  • GM says:

    Philapodia January 8, 2016 at 1:01 pm
    I've found that I enjoy having a student/post-doc do an experiment and having the data magically appear in my e-mail some time later much more than doing the experiment myself. By not having to deal with the niggly details of the experiment (if it works, that is) I get to think about the science at a much higher level than I would otherwise and can put things in a broader context for myself and for the lab than if I did the experiment myself.

    This is true and it's inevitable if the lab as a whole is to function well, however, there is a rarely appreciated problem with that set up and it is that it assumes both that:

    1) The students/post-docs are fully competent in designing, doing and analyzing the experiments and therefore you don't have to worry about anything
    2) You know everything about these experiments at such a deep level that you will be able to spot all problems with the data that may not be visible to the student.

    It's clear that 1) is a false assumption. And it should be clear to everyone who has spent a few years in this business that 2) is false too -- PIs tend to be up to date with the nitty gritty details only in their first few years, when they are still not too detached from the direct work. But I have seen way too many senior PIs who can give good advice on biochemical and molecular biology techniques from the 1970s and 1980s but are largely clueless about everything since then because countless new assays have been introduced in that time, each with dark secrets that you only get to learn if you spent some time doing them, which they have not been doing. This combined with 1) becomes a huge problem for science as a whole -- when you combine poorly trained students and postdocs with clueless PIs, the results can be often disastrous. And the way things are set up right now, that's guaranteed to be an increasingly common situation (it is common already as it is), because there are no incentives to spend the time needed to properly train people.

    That's why so many crappy papers get accepted on the strength of big-shot PIs' reputations or due to weak peer review (itself increasingly outsourced to the trainees).

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Unfortunately, some of us are PIs and have to be minions because we don't have the support to not be 🙁

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I stay in the game by starting computational side projects that I can do (mostly) myself.

    On the other hand, the days when I could walk into the lab and take apart/rebuild/troubleshoot the mass spectrometer are long gone. We traded up to a much fancier instrument, and my postdoc knows it inside and out like I used to know the old one.

  • Philapodia says:

    @GM

    "1) The students/post-docs are fully competent in designing, doing and analyzing the experiments and therefore you don't have to worry about anything"

    I fire anyone who shows weakness in my lab (ie a failed experiment).

    "2) You know everything about these experiments at such a deep level that you will be able to spot all problems with the data that may not be visible to the student."

    Of course. PIs are omniscient.

  • AAA says:

    @GMP: Completely agree! One of my grad students had the temerity to say this to me once. My response was: "Wonderful! I think you should totally work with someone who does real research. Since this is not me, please find yourself another advisor."

    I haven't heard a peep from anyone else since.

  • Dave says:

    I am only now just recognizing the benefits of having a few people work on various things while I do stuff to keep bills paid. I miss doing the cool stuff, but certainly no longer miss doing the endless optimizations, routine extractions and sample preps etc that dominate most lab work. We never have enough people, and there is always more projects and ideas than money or staff. I'd be worried if that wasn't the case.

    Non-lab stuff just has a habit of piling up, and one day you find yourself at the point where you can only spend a couple of days in the lab/week. Then all of a sudden, you have to take months out of the lab to write, and then before you know it, you haven't sat at the bench for a year. The key is keeping experiments going, and data rolling in, when you are in the transition period. That's where institutional/departmental support is incredibly important.

  • Morgan Price says:

    More people more problems.

  • Craig says:

    If the minions are competent, this is true. If you're training undergraduates or volunteers for 6 months before they can produce a piece of preliminary data, only to have them leave shortly after, you're wasting time.

    Quality minions can be hard to find, and the data yield has to outweigh the training input. I think it's particularly important early on when you're spending your own time training people (and not having another minion do it) that you find the right people to invest in.

  • Laffer says:

    Man, undergrad research during the semester can be trying. They are all busy trying to get A's, extracurriculars, and the only time for research is one half-assed experiment that surprisingly does not go well. Thankfully, my institution has money available for undergrads to work over the summer, so they get a much better idea of what can be accomplished when time is available, but then the semester rolls around again aaaaand suck.

  • Luminiferous æther says:

    Worde.

    I find those little Ms to be very useful. You have to select the right ones though. Best way to do that is to get those who have at least a year of experience working in someone else's lab (i.e wasted someone else's time on training). That way they know what a pipette looks like and what PCR stands for by the time they come to your lab. I have been very satisfied with the performance of minion's under my supervision. Work's great for their CVs too....so win-win.

  • AnonymousE says:

    Milton Friedman, Free to Choose:

    "In the economic jargon coined more than 150 years ago, that is the principle of comparative advantage. Even if we were more efficient than the Japanese at producing everything, it would not pay us to produce everything. We should concentrate on doing those things we do best, those things where our superiority is the greatest.

    As a homely illustration, should a lawyer who can type twice as fast as his secretary fire the secretary and do his own typing? If the lawyer is twice as good a typist but five times as good a lawyer as his secretary, both he and the secretary are better off if he practices law and the secretary types letters."

  • jmz4gtu says:

    The application of the term minion to a postdoc, while offensive, underscores the true nature of the job.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What? I thought after the movie this was a term of endeared respect?

  • jmz4gtu says:

    Haven't seen it, but aren't they kinda bumbling idiots? In any case, yeah, that is how it's usually used, with fondness.

    If you want to go the old timey route, given the feudal nature of US academic science, you could refer to them as vassals, knights and serfs.

  • DJMH says:

    to be fair I know postdocs who had herds of UG minions...in EM reconstruction. Those people are tracing. So yes, minions, but only because they happen to have a research problem that 100 minions can help with. Most of us don't have that.

  • qaz says:

    Postdocs are not vassals, knights, or serfs (or minions, for that matter), they are squires (knights in training who did a lot of servant work in trade for learning how to become knights) or even more accurately, apprentices and journeymen. The academic system is very much a classical guild, with apprentices earning little money in exchange for learning the trade, a journeyman level in which someone has been trained, but is unable (yet) to buy into the full guild, and a master level in which you run your own shop with your own journeymen and apprentices. We even have to construct a "masterwork" in order to move on to the next level.

  • Lincoln says:

    Qaz is right.

  • qaz says:

    BTW, my statements were not meant to defend the system. A lot of the purpose of guilds was to control the market and prevent too many masters opening shops. A common complaint against guilds was that journeymen were stuck and unable to break into the master-level and open their own shop. (Now, where have I heard that complaint before...)

  • GM says:

    Guilds were not Ponzi schemes. Academia is. Big difference.

  • qaz says:

    GM - Do you know what a ponzi scheme is? A ponzi scheme is a fraudulent process by which new investors contribute money and old investors take the money out. It is not self-sustaining and eventually collapses when there are no new investors.

    Academia is a self-sustaining process whereby investors (the taxpayer) receives returns (scientific progress). It is also a self-sustaining process in which candidates are weeded out through a series of smaller and smaller windows. That's a selection process akin to minor leagues, competitive heats, and other winnowing processes. Whether that is fair to graduation students or postdocs or not is a different question.

    By the way, getting back to DM's original point at the top of this post - the whole point of a guildshop was exactly that - a master might be better at the basic chores than a trainee, but by having a trainee do the job, moar gets done. The deal was that the trainee got training. If you are merely using the trainee as a minion to do your bidding, then you're not keeping up your half of the deal.

  • JC says:

    As a homely illustration, should a lawyer who can type twice as fast as his secretary fire the secretary and do his own typing? If the lawyer is twice as good a typist but five times as good a lawyer as his secretary, both he and the secretary are better off if he practices law and the secretary types letters."

    And yet I still find myself doing many menial tasks, e.g., editing references in a manuscript or fonts in a graph, because the students are just not careful enough. And no amount of pointing it out seems to make it stick. But I am also extremely fastidious.

  • The Other Dave says:

    It's still fun watching senior grad students and new faculty all excited to finally be 'the boss'. What they don't realize is that being PI means you are:

    1) Everyone's lab tech
    2) Everyone's secretary
    3) The person who cleans the lab when no one else does
    4) The person legally responsible when anything goes wrong
    5) The person who gets the blame when someone's project isn't going well, even though it's not your fault
    6) The person responsible for figuring out how to pay everybody
    7) The person who has to keep track of everyone's project and somehow remember what every lab member told you last week about something when you were trying to figure out why you were apparently double-billed by the animal quarters and who ordered $800 worth of this when we already have plenty and a visiting seminar speaker is due to show up any second and you have to be chatty because they might be on study section even though you have no time or interest in talking to anyone

    I love it.

  • Philapodia says:

    @The Other Dave

    to continue:

    8) The person who has to figure out how to help the minions work together while wanting to punch one or more of them in the face for being an arrogant asshat and trying not to roll your eyes when a student says their work has declined for the last 3 months because their dog died.

    9) The one person in the lab who absolutely has to (seem to) keep their shit together so everyone else can work effectively.

    10) The person who has to fire people (which is never fun or comfortable)

    11) The person who has to actually has to read the e-mails from the department/university that everyone else ignores.

    But what outweighs all of this is:

    **** You're the person who gets to put your name above the lab door and who gets credit for stuff the lab does ("Philapodia's lab is a bunch of assholes, but the sure do cool shit!")

  • E rook says:

    Thomas Kuhn made the comparison of academic research institutions to collections of fiefdoms back in 1970. I think it's apt and holds up.

  • E rook says:

    GMP, interesting observation. I have heard post docs, students, and disgruntled / disaffected people talk about male PIs behind their backs in this respect if the PI is clueless about the tools, techniques, and what goes into producing the data. I wonder if what you experience is unconscious bias on the minion's part or the lack of respect that they'd say what they're thinking to your face. on the other hand, I have also heard techs comment on, the PI "must be procrastinating on something if he's hanging out in here [the lab] so much lately." And then there's the classic PHD comic, "impending sense of doom," when the PI contemplates getting in the trenches.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "You're the person who gets to put your name above the lab door and who gets credit for stuff the lab does"

    ...or fails to do.

    "The people in my lab are stupid and lazy" don't help when you're being denied tenure for lack of productivity.

    Or your grant is turned down for lack of past productivity.

    Or you never get invited to give seminars or talks at fancy meetings because your lab never gets anything done.

    Or people mistrust you because your reagents all turn out to be shit.

    Or your career is ruined because some psychopath in your lab faked data.

    As PI, your own mistakes dog you. And the mistakes of everyone who has ever been in your lab also dog you.

  • JC says:

    @the other dave

    Everything you say is true. I never appreciated how important "quality of students" is in weighing TT offers until a couple years into the job. And frankly, I'm not too happy so far, despite being at an R1. I'm trying to learn how to work with what they can give me, but they all suffer from lack of motivation, passion, and/or ability. But I also need to be more selective going forward.

  • Anon says:

    I’m no longer a student, but it hasn’t ceased to amaze me how selfish and self-important many faculty members are. I hope this is not inevitable.

    And for those of you with shitty labs who can’t seem to make it work with anyone – here’s a newsflash: maybe *you* are the problem.

    Furthermore, if your goal as a professor is to have students who basically can succeed without you, then you don’t deserve the job. Feel free to resign and go back to the lab where you really belong – you’ll be doing everyone around you a huge favor!

  • Anon says:

    @GMP: The people you have to blame for this situation are your macho colleagues, who "complain" about not doing real science anymore in the same way they "complain" about their CFOs (i.e., wives) holding the purse strings. (Because of course, both of these things are *so* ridiculous, no?) Then clueless students hear that shit and, not knowing any better, repeat it to you. My guess is that most of them don't intend any harm.

    Tell me, do you get upset with your colleagues when they joke around this way, or is your ire reserved only for your students?

  • genomicrepairman says:

    I love my minions (undergrads and even a high school student) who I initially train up into machines and then set them loose on tasks as they develop their skills. Its awesome to watch a high schooler go from not knowing how to run a western to making extracts, running the gel and getting it into primary in just a single day. Then the undergrad is coming in the following day to finish it up, quantify it, make a figure, and render some judgement on the results. That is the coolest thing to me and my scientific army grows slowly day by day with each new minion and skill in their toolbox.

  • drugmonkey says:

    JC- If it is *all* of your trainees......?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    If you want to stay at the bench an R1 is not the place for you but there are places where you can. The caveat is that you have to carve out a niche which can get funded but is not on the cutting edge where the elephants are.

  • Dusanbe says:

    I had a high school minion who could get more stuff done than postdocs in the lab. And she understood the project better too. She should've had her own postdoc minions, come to think of it. Alas she was too good for academic science. Fortunately for her, she got out of academia before falling under its base spell.

  • JC says:

    JC- If it is *all* of your trainees......?

    No, sorry, I was being a bit dramatic. Obviously if it were, I would agree that it would reflect on me. Sadly, it's mainly the physics students in my lab (my home department). The chemistry and engineering students/postdoc are great. Something about the way physicists are trained (and I should know) makes them think they don't have to work as diligently or even regularly.

  • GM says:

    qaz January 10, 2016 at 8:58 am
    GM - Do you know what a ponzi scheme is? A ponzi scheme is a fraudulent process by which new investors contribute money and old investors take the money out. It is not self-sustaining and eventually collapses when there are no new investors.

    Academia is a self-sustaining process whereby investors (the taxpayer) receives returns (scientific progress).

    1) I know very well what a Ponzi scheme is
    2) Academia is one. Because it is not self-sustaining, and, more importantly, is not sustainable. Any system that has to keep growing or it falls apart is by definition not sustainable. Which describes the current situation of academia very well.

    Also, if you think the majority of people who pay the bills (and when it comes to the taxpayers, that is not just the majority, it is basically everyone) give a damn about "scientific progress", your existence up to this point must have been very sheltered from the real world (no offense intended).

  • drugmonkey says:

    How does academic science "fall apart" if it fails to keep growing? that's is ridiculous. if it were to shrink to half the size it would still be fine, just at a reduced output rate. if no University graduates enrolled in doctoral programs ever again starting tomorrow there would still be plenty of science to be done with existing people and BA degreed folks. if all Universities stopped training *undergrads* in science tomorrow, labs could still recruit smart high school grads and train them to do some very productive work.

    No, GM, you do not know what a Ponzi scheme is.

  • The Other Dave says:

    I too think that qaz (as usual) is correct.

  • qaz says:

    Clearly, GM either you do not understand what a ponzi scheme is (it is an unsustainable program that depends on new investors to feed the old investors) or you do not understand what academia is (an ongoing social structure in which a proportion of our economic output is aimed at long term investigation of scientific discovery).

    New trainees turning into faculty is not a ponzi scheme, it is understanding the fact that we are biological beings, we are born, we grow into our society, and then we die. A winnowing of applicants is not a ponzi scheme, it is a multi-stage competition.

    Moreover, whether or not a majority of people give a damn about scientific progress (*) is irrelevant. The fact is that our economic growth as a country is very very dependent on scientific progress.

    * If you were to actually look at surveys of the population of tax payers, you would find that the majority of the country is actually very interested in scientific progress. They often don't understand it, but they are very interested in it. The majority of people who pay the bills would be very upset if we stopped making scientific progress.

  • GM says:

    Every single pathology of the system that we have discussed here over the years is either a direct consequence or is exacerbated by the fact that the system is set up to grow indefinitely but it has stopped growing for a while now.

    This is what I mean when I say "fall apart", which, BTW, you cannot claim is not going to happen -- we have only been in this situation for some time now, but we will still be in it for a long time to come. So let's talk about it again a few decades into the future and see where things stand.

    I don't see how you can claim that "Over the course of 40 years, I will train/exploit the labor of some 50 people younger than me with the promise that they will one day replace the n=1 me and will be themselves able to train/exploit the labor of another 50 people over additional 40 years, and so on ad infinitum" is not a Ponzi scheme. That only works as long as either the system keeps expanding so that a reasonable proportion of those people have a chance to become professors and/or there are enough suckers to buy into that promise, and neither condition will hold forever. Note that the unlikely event that the system reforms itself so that it no longer functions on that basic principle would not refute what I said -- that would be the system transitioning from being a Ponzi scheme to being something else.

    Finally, I don't think you have a good idea what "scientific progress" actually means, which probably stems from not having a good understanding of what science really is (that's not impossible -- one can spend his whole life doing high-quality research without ever needing to spend too much time thinking about that; also, once again, no offense intended). It has very little to do with what the average politician promises the average person on the street when justifying spending money on research.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am not even remotely close to being on pace to exploit the labor of 50 people. This is even more obvious if you realize that the person being "exploited" may contribute to the laboratory of 3-5 people from undergrad to final postdoc and so for any given training stint you need to divide that exploiter number by 3-5.

    Also, at least* 25% of my postdocs knew for certain sure when they joined my lab that this was not a step toward a faculty/PI bid. (*That's just the ones that were clear about this with me and themselves from the git go.) So whatever was going on there in terms of value, being exploited with the promise of becoming a PI wasn't involved.

    That only works as long as either the system keeps expanding so that a reasonable proportion of those people have a chance to become professors and/or there are enough suckers to buy into that promise, and neither condition will hold forever.

    False prediction since it is based on a false premise. Science can, and does, keep right on going without "trainees". Of course I can claim we are not going to "fall apart" in the near future. You claim that academia is Ponzi scheme and then waffle and back away saying "well, if it shifts to another model it is no longer Ponzi". Well, "academia" and academic science has many models even at present. One of them is *perhaps* as you allege- highly dependent on the labor of people who are induced to work solely by the carrot that is extended in front of them. This type of situation may capture the imagination but it is far from the only way that science is accomplished right now. In particular this ignores science done with professional staff (aka techs and staff scientists).

    The only way science is going to "fall apart" is if the money supporting it (all sources) no longer flows. And if the money is cut off, it isn't a "Ponzi scheme" that is at fault by any means. It's the money.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    If one's definition of a Ponzi scheme is that there are not enough jobs at the top level, then all lines of work constitute a Ponzi scheme.

  • GM says:

    A Salty Scientist January 11, 2016 at 5:33 pm
    If one's definition of a Ponzi scheme is that there are not enough jobs at the top level, then all lines of work constitute a Ponzi scheme.

    Not really, academia is unique in that regard. There are a number of other highly competitive fields and they don't have the same characteristics. One example is sports -- the number of top teams, world titles, whatever it is you have to reach/win to make it is fixed and is not going to change. Everyone knows (or should know) that if you want to make it to the top, first, you will have to beat everyone else, and second, the chances of you being the one that beats everyone else are incredibly slim. You can try comparing the situation in academia to that in the corporate world, because there growth is fundamental to the health of the system too, and your success also depends on having quality people working for you. But success there is not measured in the same terms as in academia -- you make a lot of money, you've made it, and there is a wide variety of career paths that includes that condition for calling yourself successful. While in academia there is a very narrow definition of success and it almost invariably involves having a much larger academic progeny than is needed to replace you. So the system is not, and in its current form, cannot be in steady state.

    Regarding the comment about me "waffling and backing away" by saying "well, if it shifts to another model it is no longer Ponzi": I don't think you made any valid points on that issue. The reorganization of the system that will need to happen for it to transition to a steady state is so dramatic given the way it's set up right now that I am fully justified in saying that. And I am really baffled that you of all people are the one who has trouble understanding it given that this blog is probably the best source of information and discussions on this subject that there is on the internet, and that very same question -- how do we move to a steady-state system that can exist stably without expansion -- has featured so often on it (even if not stated in these exact terms).

    P.S. I notice that you are using "science", "academic science" and "academia" interchangeably. Maybe that is the source of the confusion -- of course there can and will be science under many systems. There has been historically and there is around the world today. But whether universities and research institutes in the US can continue indefinitely under the current system is a completely different matter.

  • jmz4 says:

    @GM, it's a confused, somewhat inapt metaphor (IMO) but one I've heard often in my discussions with the my fellow trainees. Yes the current* workforce model is non-sustainable and needs to be reformed.

    But, as DM pointed out, that doesn't mean that academic science is non-sustainable, because there is guaranteed** cash coming into the system. It's just about adequately pegging the amount of training to the amount of cash so that everyone is reasonably satisfied with their career prospects and ability to fund a lab.

    There's no cyclical feedback that's going to violently end the cycle, as in a Ponzi scheme, by collapsing the base entirely (e.g. low/late payments causing investors to back out, which brings the whole thing down). At the worst case, we'd end up with a decade or so of a paucity of trainees before incentives would be deployed to recruit more people back into science. Given how much international people the US recruits, however, this doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

    ""Over the course of 40 years, I will train/exploit the labor of some 50 people younger than me with the promise that they will one day replace the n=1 me and will be themselves able to train/exploit the labor of another 50 people over additional 40 years, and so on ad infinitum" is not a Ponzi scheme"
    -That's just exponential growth, not a Ponzi scheme. The latter term implies moral fault, and, considering how much the surplus of grant-seekers hurts PIs themselves, it's unlikely this is a conscious attempt to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Again, I do think this is a major fault in the system, but it deviates from Ponzi schemes in important ways.

    *although I feel like this has been changing the last 5-10 years, or maybe I've just become more aware of it.
    **or as stable as anything gets with Congress.

  • qaz says:

    GM - If you think that scientific progress has anything to do with what congress (congress, really?!) promises the American taxpayer or for that matter with what NIH promises congress (because of its poor knowledge of the American taxpayer), then you have spent too much time drinking the kool-aid.

    Scientific progress is discovery. That discovery drives new economic opportunities , new technologies, and improvements in health (usually with a 30-year timeline). The American people love them that discovery, whether it be landing on the moon, getting pictures of Pluto, discovering a new planet around another star, quantum weirdnesses, reading dreams with fMRI, or rats with regret. Few American's recognize the connection between science and health breakthroughs (that doesn't mean those connections don't exist). Few of them recognize the connection between science and economics (again, that doesn't mean those connections don't exist). But talk to anyone sitting next to you on an airplane and I guarantee that you'll get a very very high chance of the response to your science as "Cool!" Scientists still remain one of the most respected professions.

    We do this because we are explorers. And the American people love us for it.

Leave a Reply