Archive for the 'Ask DrugMonkey' category

Repost: Should I hire a postdoc or a technician?

Dec 08 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

This repost is via special request from some n00b Assistant Professor who has apparently lost access to Google.

It was originally posted 25 Aug, 2008.

The comments following a recent post touched on the newly independent investigator dilemma of who to hire first: A postdoctoral fellow or a technician? We'll leave aside the best answer ("both") as impractical because, as Professor in Training noted,

I only have enough money to pay ONE postdoc's salary for 18 months ... or ONE tech ... that's it. While that would be great for me, that's certainly not enough time for a postdoc to get more than one study done (in my field probably only 75% of a study). Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

YHN tends to recommend "tech" and PhysioProf tends to opt for "postdoc"...sounds like a new discussion to me!

To define terms just a little bit for those less steeped in the biz, I covered the job category of "technician" here:

A "technician" in the biomedical sciences is an employee of the laboratory (well, actually of the University) who is not "in training" (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) and does not (usually) have a terminal doctoral degree. (For example long-term PhD scientist employees who are too far along to really be "postdocs" and are not PIs are not really "techs".) Most typically the tech has a bachelor's degree in a scientific major and a few will have advanced credentials such as Veterinarian Tech specialties or subject-based Master's degrees. It is not unusual for the tech to have continued her education while working in the laboratory by taking advantage of University educational repayment policies.

One of the most important parts for today's discussion is that the technician can be viewed, non-pejoratively, as 100% an employee working "for" the lab head or Principal Investigator (PI). Someone who is expected to do what is asked at all times with the goals of furthering the lab agenda. In this employment relationship the PI is unequivocally understood to be "the boss".

A postdoctoral fellow/trainee is a person who has acquired a terminal doctoral degree (Ph.D., D.V.M, D.D.S., M.D.) and is working under the supervision of an independent investigator. Here one key difference is that the postdoc is in a dual role, the balance of which is debated. The postdoc is considered a "trainee" in the sense that s/he is working in part for her (his) own benefit, to acquire skills and tools that will be required to obtain and launch an independent research career. This notion implies a degree of independence from the PI, an ability to work on stuff other than what the PI has "told" her (him) to do, possibly to work on stuff that is only of benefit to the postdoc (and not the lab or PI directly), etc. I happen to believe that the postdoc also has a responsibility to help the lab and, in essence, to do the job for which s/he was hired and to make all data generated accessible to the PI...but not every postdoc agrees with that. In truth it is also likely that some PIs either explicitly or implicitly think that postdocs are basically indistinguishable from technicians when it comes to the employment relationship. So there's a spectrum.

Okay, so why do I think a tech is more important to secure for a brand new PI?
That isn't your job anymore. Scutwork. Tedium. The stuff that is absolutely necessary to the running of your lab which is not particularly demanding in intellect and may be incredibly time-consuming. Yes, you specialized in this as a lowly graduate student and took pride in the fact that you were able to do this work as a postdoc while still doing more high-falutin' intellectual labor. Postdocs around you who couldn't find their behind with both hands when it came to the basic work were to be derided. Fine. But this is not your job anymore!!! My position is that the more time-consuming scutwork you can get off your plate the better. Since nobody likes scutwork, it is far better to rely on an employee who is paid to do a job, can be readily fired and replaced, for this sort of thing.

Your first deceptively hard question as a new PI is that of determining which tasks in the lab really do not require your input, after basic training and given that you will continue to supervise and troubleshoot. I say deceptively hard because my experience in talking with some fairly advanced postdocs and even junior faculty is that they have not really thought about this question. They get stuck in the usual traps. "It is more work than it is worth to train somebody to do this." "I only trust my own work/data/analyses." "My hands are the best." "This is too important to screwup." Etc.

All true. Being a PI takes a big leap of faith in the work of others. This is, in my view, part of the deal. For the huge increase in scientific terrain you are able to cover as a PI directing the efforts of other scientists, you are accepting the risk that someone else is not as good as you*. So get over this. Your job is to learn how to set up your management style such that you can tolerate human frailty and still make excellent progress on what interests you.

Progress and Work Ethic. Management of personnel is one of the hardest things for new PIs to learn. After all, we were motivated self-starters so we can't really understand why everyone else would bother to be doing this stuff if they weren't self-wackaloon-motivated. Sadly, not every one is just like you (ibid), new PI! Which means that you may have to evaluate an employees work effort and apply some judicious boots to the posterior. Perhaps even with threats of dismissal and actual dismissal for poor performance. It is very much easier to do this with a technician who is supposed to be working 100% at your behest.

Stability. In most cases postdocs will be transient visitors to your lab, lasting 3-5 years at best. So sure, a good one may get you through tenure. But postdocs can and do leave for all kinds of reasons. Their interests and relative focus on your stuff necessarily changes as time elapses. The tech on the other hand, can be a more or less career employee in whom your investment over time continues to pay you back over intervals of a decade or more.

Availability. Unless you are very lucky or very HawtStuff, recruiting a good postdoc to your laboratory is far from given. I've seen this from all ends, as a postdoc, peer of postdocs, mentor to postdocs , as a PI seeking fellows and as a peer to other junior faculty looking to hire. I've seen situations in which the fellow (or grad student) was very focused on joining the lab of the local BigCheez and quickly evolved to be working most closely with local junior investigators because the fit was so obviously better. The bottom line is that for a postdoc the prospect of joining a starting Assistant Professor's lab is very much of career concern.

An additional concern with availability is that it is not unusual for postdocs and PIs to come to arrangements far in advance of the actual start date. Very anecdotally, I'd say the better the candidate, the more likely this is the case. So a junior PI who manages to recruit and lock-in a highly promising candidate may have to accept that she will not be arriving in the lab for a year. That's a big hit, especially if that is the first year in which teaching loads have been reduced. Technicians are typically hired with a fairly short lead time on the order of weeks at worst.

Data Stream Strategy for the Long Haul. This one verges dangerously close to the argument over being an investigator who operates on the cutting edge at all times versus the small-town grocer. So YMMV. If, however, you have an aspect of your research program which can putter along with relatively little input from you, is of lasting importance to your scientific goals and interests and, most importantly, can support a steady stream of bread-and-butter publications I recommend getting this going. It is not necessary that the tech does all of the work up to publication-quality figures, of course, mainly that s/he is able to generate good quality and interesting data at your direction. Or the tech is capable of doing most of the work with you sailing in for the essential parts.

It is all very well and good to shoot for GlamourPubs. If you manage to get them, you are set. I get this. Not getting them is, however, excusable. In most environments, meaning that even if not in your specific department you can get a job elsewhere. Perhaps one theoretical tier down, but still a research-focused job. What is not optional is publishing somewhere, anywhere**. When it comes to most decisions that matter, tenure and review of prior progress when it comes to grant review, 0-fer is not excusable. Published articles can be debated on their merits with respect to actual impact, importance, brilliance, what have you. A lack of publication can not be debated or defended***. Admittedly the postdoc who is half-decent has a greater possibility of getting all the way to a submittable manuscript. But the bread-n-butter tech is near guaranteed to make sure the data are available to writeup when you are feeling the publication pinch.

Final Thought. It basically comes down to risk management from my perspective. If you can get a very good, hardworking postdoc right away the choice is pretty clear in opting for the postdoc. I am quite pessimistic, however, that new PIs can pull that off. When it comes down to a postdoc who will not show up for 12 months, a postdoc who is lazy, distracted or really focused on interests that are not sufficiently in line with yours...well, the technician wins every time.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention originally but was reminded of by the first comment. The chances of getting a technician working for you for free are next to zero. It is possible to get a postdoc for free, however. A postdoc may come with their own fellowship (there are many international-study type fellowships where a country funds individual fellows to go abroad, for example) or you may be able to secure a slot on a local institutional training grant for your postdoc. This is not a guarantee but these situations are considerably more likely than getting a technician working for you but paid for by some other source of support.

*almost by definition, the fact that you are a PI now means the smart money bets you were a better-than-average postdoc. Very likely you had more motivation, intellectual curiosity and, yes, better experimental hands than the average bear. Which means that on average, postdocs that come into your lab are going to fall short of the standard of you! (Yes, even accounting for an inflated view of self.) Deal.
**"anywhere" means "peer reviewed" and is environment specific. Whatever your field considers the supposedly lowest denominator or a minimally respectable "dump journal" or whatever.
***usually. I could tell you some stories. But really, make it easy on yourself and publish something already!

19 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Oct 01 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey

Some days...

I tell you, one of the most hilarious parts of this blogging gig is this.

On the one hand, any time I try to gently suggest that postdocs could work a little harder, might need to actually produce a little more, need to figure out how to close out "projects" into submittable manuscripts AND THAT THIS IS A TRAIT THAT THEIR PIs HAD AS POST DOCS.....

I get pushback.

From the hordes of Internet postdocs who are all brilliant, wonderfully productive, practically PIs themselves in all significant ways and are, sadly, only held back by their current rat bastige PIs who fail to help them in some egregious manner.

On the other hand,I have recieved a lot of commentary behind the scenes from PIs. Who tell me the most hilarious stories about postdocs who fail to produce, are completely delusional about their own efforts, accomplishments and/or levels of effort.

There is only one possible conclusion.

The postdocs who read my blog and the PIs who read my blog are entirely independent sets with no possible areas of population overlap.

35 responses so far


Aug 20 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Day in the life of DrugMonkey

I want you Readers to succeed in your careers and your grant seeking.

You are not bothering me* in the least when you email with questions.


*I may ignore you but mostly I respond.

4 responses so far

On coming up with multiple ideas for R01 proposals

A question to the blog asked the perennial concern that is raised every time I preach on about submitting a lot of proposals. How does one have enough ideas for that? My usual answer is a somewhat perplexed inability to understand how other scientists do not have more ideas in a given six month interval than they can possible complete in the next 20 years.

I reflected slightly more that usual today and thought of something.

There is one tendency of new grant writers that can be addressed here.

My experience is that early grant writers have a tendency to write a 10 year program of research into their initial R01s. It is perfectly understandable and I've done it myself. Probably still fall into this now and again. A Stock Critique of "too ambitious" is one clue that you may need to think about whether you are writing a 10 year research program rather than a 5 year, limited dollar figure, research project that fits within a broader programmatic plan.

One of the key developments as a grant writer, IMNSHO, is to figure out how to write a streamlined, minimalist grant that really is focused on a coherent project.

When you are doing this properly, it leaves an amazing amount of additional room to write additional, highly-focused proposals on, roughly speaking, the same topic.

34 responses so far

Strategies for your #A2asA0 Resubmissions

Jun 30 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

A query came into the blog email box about how to deal with submitting a new grant based on the prior A1 that did not get funded. As you know, NIH banned any additional revisions past the A1 stage back in 2009. Recently, they have decided to stop scrutinizing "new" applications for similarity with previously reviewed and not-funded applications. This is all well and good but how should we go about constructing the "new" grant, eh? A query from a Reader:

Do you use part of your background section to address reviewer comments? You're not allowed to have an introduction to the application, but as far as I can tell there is no prohibition on using other parts of the application as a response to reviewers.

I could see the study section as viewing this a) innovative, b) a sneaky attempt to get around the rules, c) both a and b.

I am uncertain about the phrasing of the Notice where it says "must not contain an introduction to respond to the critiques from the previous review". In context I certainly read this as prohibiting the extra page that you get for an amended application. What is less clear is whether this is prohibiting anything that amounts to such introduction if you place it in the Research Strategy. I suspect you could probably get away with direct quotes of reviewer criticisms.

This seems unwise to me, however. I think you should simply take the criticisms and revise your proposal accordingly as you would in the case of an amended version. These revisions will be sprinkled throughout the application as appropriate- maybe a change in the Significance argument, maybe a new Experiment in Aim 2, maybe a more elaborated discussion of Potential Pitfalls and Alternative Approaches.

Given the comments, perhaps you might need to state some things twice or set off key points in bold type. Just so the next set of reviewers don't miss your point.

But I see no profit in directly quoting the prior review and it just wastes space.

10 responses so far

High school email-an-expert projects: Respond or ignore?

I have been experiencing a sharp uptick in high school projects that are apparently titled: "Email questions to some random expert on the internet" lately.

Is anyone else getting these?

Do you respond? In what depth?

17 responses so far

The protection afforded by pseudonyms depends on the community

Jan 21 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, BlogBlather, Blogging

As you know, DearReader, I blog and engage with the Twittersphere under a pseudonym. I do so for a variety of reasons, some of which were in the forefront when I started and are no longer really an issue. Some reasons have appeared or become strengthened over time. Some are relatively more important to me and some are less important.

Some of these reasons overlap with the usual ones described in defense of pseudonymity and some are relatively unique to my own personal decisions on reasons that are both personal and professional.

Some reasons that I have for being a pseudonymous blogger are entirely related to making my blogging more effective in terms of what I want to do.

In what is now over seven years engaging in the blogosphere there is one issue that has brought me to do the most unsolicited, tut-tutting, pseudofatherly advice to bloggers via nonpublic communication methods.

Never assume your pseudonym is iron clad protection against being identified by people that matter to you. Ever. Blog accordingly.

My advice stems from my occasional coursework in human cognitive psychology. It shouldn't surprise anyone but apparently it is not at the forefront of everyone's mind (more on this in a second). The brain is a wonderfully synthetic organ that permits the linking of seemingly unconnected facts and experiences into a sometimes brilliant whole. It is fantastic at taking seemingly limited, low bandwith, pixellated information and creating a detailed picture. What this understanding means for pseuds is that you cannot help but leave breadcrumbs as to your identity. You blog because you want to talk about things that are important to you. Good blogging is infused with the personal perspective and the personal anecdote. One can't help but assert some aspects of ones authoritah! (more on this below) in making an argument. Categorical interests tend to set a context.

Most importantly these random details and contexts permit the Reader to rule out many of the obvious suspects for whom you might be.

Next, I turn to the question of voice. If you are doing blogging right (IMNSHO), you are infusing your writing with a defined voice. Usually, that is your voice and sounds one heck of a lot like the things that you usually say in real life. After all, these are matters that are important to you or you wouldn't be blogging. While there is no particular reason a complete stranger should recognize your voice, I hold it to be self-evident that your friends and colleagues will. My assumption has always been that if anyone who knows me runs across my blog and reads more than about two posts, they will know it is me. With very little doubt.

With that said, pseudonymity still works. Determining the identity of a given pseudonymous person on the internet still requires a bit of work, if one is not fortuitously connected to that person in real life. Depending on the various categories of personal information available, there may be many people who could be the blogger in question. This will vary tremendously depending on the number of the tiny bits of information one curious pseud-buster has available to them. One of the most important barriers to detection is therefore the avoidance of direct linking of a real name to a pseudonym in a place that is easily Google-able.

Due to these and other factors, maintaining the relative security/secrecy of ones pseudonym depends on the community. It depends first and foremost on the community not to put the identification of a pseud's real name with their pseudonymous person in any digital format that can be Googled and/or linked. This is a relatively easy distinction.

Integrity of pseuds also depends on the community minimizing the extent to which it provides, amplifies and broadcasts the tiny bits of information that identify the blogger. This, my friends, is the tricky bit.

A blogger may have provided some detail of their person, identity or life many years ago in a random post which a given Reader remembers. Generally speaking, if a blogger talks about something on blog, well this is fair-ish game. If I let you in on a detail of my life and leave it on the blog, I certainly can't blame anyone else for knowing this detail. And yet. A pseudonymous blogger may not wish the details critical to divining his or her identity to be repeatedly mentioned, in context, over and over for all and sundry to assess. But we exist in a community. We make friendships that depend on personal details in many cases. We make connections with Readers that are based on those tiny details and assumptions about our past and present. We embrace granfalloon. This works at cross-purposes with the integrity of the pseudonym. And so it depends on the community to uphold the pseudonym veil.

One defense I make for people who interact with pseudonymous persons and inadvertently make comments that would tend to out the pseud is a caution for those who are themselves pseudonymous. In many cases where a person identifies the real life identity of a pseudonymous blogger, it consequentially becomes unimaginable that this person is really trying too hard to be pseudonymous. As I said, if a person who knows me well runs across the blog, they are going to be thinking that it sounds so much like him that there is no possible WAY he is trying to be secret about it. Others who put the several obvious clues together, see that a pseud repeatedly mentions such clues and likewise conclude that it is an open secret of the not-very-secret variety.

The trouble is, it is very difficult for such people to remember that this is not the case for everyone and the goal is to not facilitate trivial identification. It is also difficult for people to remember that there are certain details that one does NOT ever cop to on the blog. It is difficult to remember that just one extra detail may narrow down the suspect from a group of six to an obvious one.

It is difficult for the well-intentioned internet friend to remember that a pseudonymous blogger is constantly adding new Readers and that they are not all aware of personal detail.

It is also difficult for the well-intentioned interlocutor to remember the possible harm that might be created by mistakenly linking a pseud to the wrong person- either because of direct accusation or because of mentioning details that might point in the wrong direction. There have been several cases brought to my attention in which it was clear that someone thought "Drugmonkey" was some other scientific peer of mine. This is, given my comments and tone about several serious things in science, not fair to them.

So....about me.

One reason that is a mainstay of my pseudonym is my understanding of the way that one's personal authoritah! within science can make one lazy when it comes to arguing about the conduct of science. Michael Eisen has made the case for this in an excellent post. I like rambunctious discussion and being called out on the stupid stuff I say on the blog. I value being called out on my privilege. While I consider myself to be no great shakes in the professional arena, it is assy in the extreme not to recognize that my role places me in a position of power relative to others. Some of whom are my readers. There are grad students, postdocs, junior faculty, my lateral peers and even graybeards from my field that interact with me online. People who might hesitate to say something for fear my role as a paper or grant reviewer, potential mentor, associate editor, casual peer-recommender or letter writer may be contaminated by some personal pique over online interactions. See Dr Isis' excellent post for a reality check on this fear.

A related reason lies in the disconnect between my prescriptive comments about the way this career business should go, my descriptive comments and how I might behave within my sphere of professional obligations. Especially at the start of my blogging, I was worried that I would be compromising the mission of the NIH were I to be directly linked to my blog comments; this had to do with grant review. It would be very easy to conclude that I was pursuing a grant review agenda that was entirely at odds with the charge given us by the CSR. I happen to think that I do a pretty good job of doing the work expected of me in navigating the provision of personal expertise for which I was selected within the instructions and obligations of the formal review process and the cultural expectations of a study section. And every reveiwer has biases. Unfortunately the CSR/NIH is in the business of pretending individual biases do not exist in study section and therefore the admission on the part of a reviewer would be a detriment to what they are trying to do. So this was an issue.

Another reason has to do with insane, theologically motivated opponents of animal research. As you know, we have several colleagues in the neurosciences that have been under siege in their homes for years now. I'll let you do the math on that one.

I have a spouse. At times, this blog ventures into territory in which people want to know a lot about said spouse and our domestic arrangements. I try not to make decisions and to take actions that directly involve other people's beeswax without their explicit permission. This is no different.

Now, one of the more interesting issues to distill out of the foregoing comments is that a pseudonymous identity can be misleading. Obviously there are going to be people synthesizing the bits of information and the statements and comments made to come up to a wrong impression. I mentioned misidentification of an individual above. But there is also the misidentification of various personal and professional characteristics. And this misidentification can be viewed as the type of dishonesty that is often used to argue why pseudonymous participants on the internet are horrible and evil.

One specific example has to do with a couple of my friends on the Twittahs. Who have taken to engaging in the sort of tangentially-outing behavior that I describe above as possibly coming from a place that does not include active malice. In this particular case it was by way of referring (inaccurately as it happens) to the number of R01 grants on which I serve as PI. The reason for doing so was because these individuals (or at least one of them) has the strong impression that my comments on the NIH grant game substantially misrepresent this fact about my career. In a way that somehow unfairly benefits my pseudonym. It is not clear to me whether the objection was to the force of my arguments or the appreciation the community has for my comments, these being the two sources of currency I can think of.

In a sense these are mind boggling accusations for anyone who has read my blog over any period of time. I make it pretty clear what my job category is, what my perception of "what it takes" is, my general type of research and approximate depth in the career etc. I also mention repeatedly how grateful I am for both my relative success within the NIH system and to the taxpayers for their ongoing support. All of these should give anyone who has a half a clue about this business some idea of where I stand. Apparently, however, it is possible that my Twitter persona creates an entirely different view of where I stand and therefore the persona created by the blogger seems....different. Somehow.

Obviously I am only partially responsible for the perceptions that I create. And there are people who jump to some pretty far fetched conclusions in their desire to undermine me, as opposed to my arguments themselves.

I think, on more sober reflection, that this anecdote underscores both my reasons for mounting my arguments from a position not directly tied to my status in science/academia and my comments above about the community involvement in maintaining pseudonym integrity.

I end with one of my themes for the year. I ask the outer of pseuds and the arguer against psueds:

What's the end game here?

As a blowhard on the internet is finding out this week, outing a pseudonymous blogger doesn't injure this person's standing, authoritah! or arguments. It doesn't reduce the size of the persons' internet platform for advancing a cause or, most likely, interfere with the real life career. If anything, it enhanced all of these things! And said blowhard clearly injured his own real-life standing with his petulance.

Communities have behavioral standards. They tend to be opt-in. On the internet, there is very little enforcement of the rules. So anyone is free to be any sort of ass that they desire. We should all recognize this. This corner of the internet inhabited by academics, and scientists in particular, is most assuredly a community, however. So if you choose to be an ass, the community is going to tell you so. We should all recognize this. All of us are going to be the ass at times. If you aren't, you aren't really saying anything of importance. We can control, however, the scope of our assiness. And the response we have when told we are being an ass about a particular topic. We should all recognize this.

31 responses so far

On showing the lab your grant proposals

Jul 02 2013 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Mentoring

I think I've done a post on this before but it arose again on the Twitts today.

As a lab head, I give all the trainees access to our funded grant proposals..and often the applications I am working on. I would certainly give them to someone in my lab upon request if I had forgotten to email something to them (or not bothered in the case of our current firehose of applications).

I am at a considerable loss to imagine why any lab head would have a problem doing this.

Does anyone have any new insight on why a PI would not make the funded grant proposals available? Doesn't everyone in the lab need to have at least some understanding of what is supposed to be accomplished?

Now, benign neglect, I can sort of understand. Not all the PIs out there understand how important it is to get the trainees thinking about the grant cycle as early as possible. Opinions vary on that. Some would rather trainees not be "distracted". I get that...but I think it outmoded.

But outright refusal to hand the grant over if asked? That is odd....almost to the point of suspecting shenanigans.

34 responses so far

Query for my readers on SBIR/STTR grant review

Apr 30 2013 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Grant Review, NIH

Anyone out there ever reviewed SBIR or STTR grants for the NIH? Any thoughts on what seems to be most important, common pitfalls and the like? Any thoughts on how the review discussion tends to differ from standard R01 review?

I have essentially zero experience with these mechanisms and some reader was asking.....

9 responses so far

Expectations for trainee publication output

A question arrived about publication expectations for trainees at the blog mailbox recently.

I was wondering if you would consider a blog post and perhaps encouraging discussion on a related topic, on how do you evaluate your student/postdoc performance and how common is the 1 paper/yr "rule"?

At the outset I was skeptical that much use would come of trying to answer this because the real answer is "It depends very much on subfield and ultimate career aspirations, therefore broad sweeping pronouncements are of little value.". And this is true. But what the heck? I'll give you my thoughts from my point of view, no doubt some others will go shitnutz about how it is clearly different and maybe we can hash out the space of useful answers.

Some detailed stuff that I thought about, but often are not discussed thoroughly include:
- I always assumed that when people talk about 1 paper/yr it refers to 1 first-author paper but not in a top-tier journal (usually "best in the sub-field" journal, e.g. Org. Lett., J. Med. Chem., etc.)

Yeah. I think one paper per year is a pretty good general starting point. Emphasis on general. For trainees, I think this average will be lower, ditto if you only count first-author papers. But it is a pretty good target expectation for the central tendency. One first author per year in a "top tier" journal is a ridiculously absurd expectation for postdocs. Even one per year in a "top tier" journal as senior author is only possible for the very top laboratories and is therefore not the expectation for everyone. If you can do it, good on you, but it ain't typical. So if you are in a place where you think this is the standard for postdocs? please. I'm familiar with a lab that has probably one of the highest CNS counts ever and the postdocs do not hit one CNS pub per year as first author. They have not done so over the ~15 years I've been watching the lab's production. So anyone who does this out there in the whole postdoc population is the rare exception.

- How do you factor in non-1st author papers? Ignoring the effects of journal IF, would one 1st-author paper = two 2nd-author paper?

There is no direct relationship, I would argue. Non-substitutable quantities. No amount of non-first author papers makes up for not having any first-author papers. They are just that important in the minds of many people, including me. Conversely, the existence of some 2nd-Xth author papers is better than not having any, because more is better when it comes to publications on the CV. I suppose at some point there would be a balance point in which too many Nth author papers starts to subtract from the credit generated by the first-author list. It would be related to the thought of "why doesn't this trainee have more firsts if she is this experimentally productive?".

- Do people even consider anything greater than 2nd-authorship (i.e. having 3rd authorship is basically useless or not counted)? If so, does the level of the prestige of the journal change this perception (i.e. having 3rd authorship in PNAS is equivalent to a 1st-author in some 2nd-tier journal like Biochemistry)?

In my view, no, the Nth author on an article in a higher IF journal doesn't trump first-author in a lesser journal. See above, the Nth authorships count but I would say they are independent of the first-author credits. So within the sphere of Nth authorships, sure, the higher IF is better.

- How do you factor in the prestige or IF of the journal? Does publishing in Science/Nature/Cell count as having 2-3 1st-author papers in 2nd-tier journals?

Indubitably the CNS first-author counts more than several first-authors in lesser journals. One might even suggest that CNS first-author as a postdoc trumps infinity non-CNS first-authors. For some situations. There are those that assert that the presence/absence of very specific journals on the CV is the difference between round-filing an application for an Assistant Professor position and placing it on the long-list for consideration. I credit these assertions but would also point out that there are many perfectly acceptable jobs that would not have this absurd criterion.

- Do people take a time-average (i.e. as long as you get 5 papers in 5 years it's fine), or is having a regular output more important (i.e. would prefer to have 1 paper every year as opposed to 2 papers in 1st year and 3 papers in 5th year but nothing in between)?

I would say that it is only once one becomes a PI that it is ever reasonable to look at consistency of output. This particular example would not even be noticed, I would say. And even then it sort of depends on the type of work you do. I know of multiple types of work in my areas of interest (particularly human studies) that have years of data collection followed by a flurry of papers.

When I have recommended shooting for consistent output, being concerned with whether a manuscript submitted to Journal X at this point in the year will have a pub date from this year, etc it has to do mostly with motivation. Most of the time the pace of submission for a postdoc is not going to be easily controlled. The experiments have their own timeline. Things come up. New things need to be done to wrap up the paper. Then there are the many sources of delay in the review process. There is no reason to obsess about 2 in first year / 3 in fifth over meeting a strict rate of 1 per year for 5 years.

The clock is ever ticking, however and since one cannot go back and fill in missing publication-years, one is best keeping one's eye on the prize. If you haven't had a paper in a two year span, well maybe it is better to dump out a quick one, give up on hitting the highest possible IF, etc. You have to make this judgement thinkingly, of course. And no, there are no formulaic answers such as my correspondent seems to be seeking.

Balance. That is my best suggestion.

25 responses so far

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