Archive for the 'Careerism' category

Thought of the Day

Dec 17 2014 Published by under BlogBlather, Careerism

This blog is as much about succeeding in the world as we find it as it is about complaining about the bad things.

9 responses so far

Authorship decisions

Deciding who should and should not be on the author line of a science publication is not as simple as it seems. As we know, citations matter, publications matter and there are all sorts of implications for authorship of a science publication.

A question about this arose on the Twitts:

Of course, we start from a very basic concept. Authorship of a scientific paper is deserved when someone has made a significant contribution to that paper. I can't distill it down any more than that. Nice and clean.

The trouble comes in when we consider the words significant and contribution.

This is where people disagree.

I also rely on another basic concept which is that someone should try to match, to a large extent, the practices within the subfields from which similar work is published. This can mean the journal itself, the scientific sub-domain or the institution type from which the paper is being submitted.

On to the specifics of this case.

First, do note that I understand that not everyone is in the position to wield ultimate authority when it comes to these matters. @forensictoxguy appears to be able to decide so we'll take it from that perspective. I will mention, however, that even if you are not the deciderer for your papers, you can certainly have an opinion and advocate this opinion with the person in charge of the decision making.

My first observation is that there is nothing wrong with single-author papers. They might be rare these days but they do occur. So don't be afraid to offer up a single-author paper now and again.

With that said, we now move on to the fact that the author line is a communication. Whether you are trying to convey a message about yourself as a scientist or not, your CV tells a story about you. And everything on there has potential implications for some audiences.

ethical, schmethical. Again, you don't throw someone on a paper "just because", you do it because they made a contribution. A contribution that you, as the primary/communicating/deciderering author, get to determine and evaluate. It is not impossible that these other people referred to in the Tweet made, or will make, a contribution. It could be via setting the environment (physical resources, administrative requirements, funding, etc), training the author or it could be through direct assistance with crafting the manuscript after all the work has been done. All of these are valid as domains for significant contribution.

This scenario of a private industry research lab appears, from the tweets, to be one where the colleagues and higher-ups are not intimately involved in pushing paper submissions. It appears to be a case where the author in question is deciding whether or not to even bother publishing papers. Therefore, the politics of ignoring more-senior folks (if they exist) is unfamiliar. I can't do much but read through the Tweet lines and assume this person is not risking annoying someone who is their boss. Obviously if someone in a boss-like status would be miffed, it is in your interest to find some way that they can make a contribution that is significant in your own understanding or to have a bloody discussion about it at the very least.

Leaving off the local politics, we can turn to the implications for your CV and the story of you as a scientist that it is going to tell.

If all you ever have are first-author publications it will look, to the modern eye, like you are non-collaborative, meaning not a team player. This is probably an impression you would like to avoid, yes, even within an industrial setting. But this is easy to minimize. I can't set any hard and fast rules but if you have some solo-author and some multiple-author pubs sprinkled throughout your timeline, I can't see this being a big deal. Particularly if your employment particulars do not demand a lot of pubs and, see above, the other people around you are not publishing. Eventually it would become clear that you are the one pushing publication so it isn't weird to see solo-author works.

Consider, however, that you are possibly losing the opportunity to burnish your credentials. The current academic science arc has an expectation for first-author papers as a trainee (grad student, postdoc) which is then supposed to transition to last-author pubs as a scientific supervisory person (aka professor or PI). Industry, I surmise, can have a similar path whereby you start out as some sort of lowly Scientist and then transition to a Manager where you are supervising a team.

In both of these scenarios, academic and industry, looking like you are a team-organizing, synthetic force is good. Adding more authors can be helpful in creating this impression. Looking like you are the driving intellectual participant on a sub-area of science is good. This concern looks like it votes for thinning your authorship lines- after all, someone else in your group might start to leech credit away from you if they appear consistently or in a position (read: last author, co-contributing author) that implies they are more of the unifying intellectual driver.

This is where you need to actually think about your situation.

I tell trainees who are worried about being hosed out of that one deserved first-author position or being forced to accept a co-contributing second author this
; You are in for the long haul. If you are publishing multiple papers in this area of science (and you should be) then for the most part you will have first-authors and in the end analysis it will be clear that you are the consistent and most important participant. It will be a simple matter for your CV to communicate that you are the ONE. So it may not be worth sweating the small stuff on each contentious author issue.

In a related vein, it costs you little to be generous, particularly with middle authors that have next to no impact on your credit for this work.

If you only plan to publish one paper, obviously this changes the calculation.

Do you ever plan to make a push for management? Whether of the academic PI or industry variety, I think it is useful to lay down a record of being the leader of the team. That can mean being communicating author or being last author. At some point, even in industry, an ambitious scientist may wish to start being last author even under the above-mentioned scenario.

This is what brand new PIs have to do. Find someone, anyone to be the first author on pubs so that they can be the last author. This is absolutely necessary for the CV as a communication device. Undergrad volunteer? Rotation student? Summer intern? No problem, they can be the first author right? Their level of contribution is not really the issue. I can see an industry scientist that wants to start making a push for management doing something similar to this.

As always, I return to the concept that you have to do your own research within your own situation to figure out what the expectations are. Look at what most people like yourself, in your situation, tend to do. That's your starting point. Then think about how your CV is going to look to people over the medium and long term. And make your authorship decisions accordingly.

92 responses so far

Supplementary Materials practices rob authors of citation credit

This is all the fault of qaz. And long time reader Nat had a blog post on this ages ago.

First, I shouldn't have to remind you all that much about a simple fact of nature in the academic crediting system. Citations matter. Our quality and status as academic scientists will be judged, in small or in large ways, by the citations that our own publications garner.

This is not to say the interpretation of citations is all the same because it most assuredly is not. Citation counting leads to all sorts of distilled measures across your career arc- Highly Cited and the h-index are two examples. Citation counting can be used to judge the quality of your individual paper as well- from the total number of cites, to the sustained citing across the years to the impressive-ness of the journals in which your paper has been cited.

Various stakeholders may disagree over which measure of citation of your work is most critical.

On one thing everyone agrees.

Citations matter.

One problem (out of many) with the "Supplementary Materials", that are now very close to required at some journals and heavily encouraged at others, is that they are ignored by the ISI's Web of Science indexing and, so far as I can tell, Google Scholar.

So, by engaging in this perverted system by which journals are themselves competing with each other, you* are robbing your colleagues of their proper due.

Nat observed that you might actually do this intentionally, if you are a jerk.

So now, not only can supplementary info be used as a dumping ground for your inconclusive or crappy data, but you can also stick references to your competitors in there and shaft them their citations.

Try not to be a jerk. Resist this Supplementary Materials nonsense. Science will be the better for it.

*yes, this includes me. I just checked some Supplementary citations that we've published to see if either ISI or Google Scholar indexes them- they do not.

25 responses so far

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

How would we know when science trainees bail on the career?

We all know about the oversupply problem in academic science wherein we are minting new PhDs faster than we create / open faculty jobs to house them.

Opinions vary on what is the proper ratio. All the way from "every PHD that wants a hard-money traditional Professorial job should get one" to "who cares if it is 1% or even 0.001%, we're getting the best through extreme competition!"

(I fall in between there. Somewhere.)

How would we detect it, however, if we've made things so dismal that too many trainees are exiting before even competing for a job?

One way might be if a job opportunity received very few qualified applicants.

Another way might be if a flurry of postdoctoral solicitations in your subfield appeared. I think that harder flogging of the advert space suggests a decline in filling slots via the usual non-public recruiting mechanisms.

I am hearing / seeing both of these things.

68 responses so far

Tenure expectations and PI dropout from NIH funding

Oct 31 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Rockey's post on PI survival also had a graph on the persistence of PIs in submitting applications.


She noted that the 1989 first-R01-equivalent folks dropped off in their grant submitting persistence around years 3-5 more than the younger cohorts.

A comment by qaz on the prior post of mine triggered a thought.

What about people who otherwise didn't really want or need a NIH R01 grant but it was a requirement for (or strongly supportive of) a tenure case?

If department expectations/preferences (for tenure or in who they hired in the first place) have changed since the late 80s, this could explain the difference in early drop-out, one-and-done rates across cohort.

19 responses so far

Should we continue long-funded NIH grant programs under younger PIs?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

In the course of discussing the infamous graph showing the longitudinal increase in the median age of first-R01 award, and the other infamous slide deck showing the aging of the distribution of all NIH-funded PIs there is something that eventually comes up.

To wit, how do we ease the older investigators out of the system, at least to the extent of cutting down how many grants they submit and are awarded?
Continue Reading »

13 responses so far

McKnight doubles down on "riff raff" on NIH grant review panels

Oct 08 2014 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

We recently discussed a President's column at ASBMB Today by Steven McKnight in which he claimed that NIH grant review panels are contaminated with "riff-raff" who are incompetent to properly review proposals.

A Nature News piece published today notes that McKnight 'was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.'

Very interesting. He was saddened, apparently, that not enough scientists understood he was calling them riff-raff! It is not only the junior scientists, it is also everybody else that he despises.

“A level of mediocrity has crept into the grant-review system,” he said. He recalled that earlier in his career, grant-review committees were packed with well-known scientists with established credentials. “Now when I look at the list, I’ll know zero names. Five or six of them will be people from fly-by-night biotech companies.” He said that he hasn’t done any quantitative research on this trend, “but I think I’m probably right”.

Let's just unpack that "I'll know zero names" business. There is an alternative hypothesis here, which is that perhaps McKnight doesn't "know" the names of people that he should.

Leaving aside whether or not McKnight actually performed any review of scientific quality per se, let us recall what happens in any age graded social situation. For my US readers in particular, I will remind you of who you "knew the names of" when you were a Freshman in High School or College versus who you "knew the names of" when you were a Senior in those respective environs. I submit to you that, as was my experience, when are looking up the social ranks, you know a heck of a lot more people than when you are looking down the social ranks.

This squares entirely with my direct experiences with my older peers in science. It is not infrequent that I refer to someone I think of as a hot Young Gun of science and the oldster has no idea who I am talking about. Even when the oldster has been impressed by the work that person has done in OtherOldster's lab but still mentally tags it to the OtherOldster. It is only with time, repetition and further excellence from the Young Gun that my acquaintance oldsters come to "see" the name of the Young Gun.

Note, this can be well into said Young Gun's independent career as an Assistant Professor.

I am not trying to excuse McKnight's snobbiness here at all. I am mentioning a common social experience that has to do with the accident of age and relative stature and has essentially nothing to do with relative merits of the people one "knows the name of".

Given that this is so common, however, you might think one would be hesitant to bray on about people's merits as a scientist based on whether your rapidly aging (and clearly not the most socially tuned) brain happens to recognize their name.

Note: Just for grins I'm reviewing the panel rosters in the
Integrative, Functional, and Cognitive Neuroscience IRG [IFCN]. These eight panels review a lot of Neuroscience grants. Admittedly I scanned quickly, and did not review the meeting rosters for ad hoc members, but I found zero individuals from biotechs. I also note that the Universities are heavily dominated by the R1s and the non-University Institutions represented are very well known Med schools and Research Institutes. I don't think I am even above the mean (or 25th percentile, frankly) in being able to recognize names across all of neuroscience.....but even scanning quickly I saw some big names all across these groups.

This may not be comprehensive data either but it sure as heck overmatches McKnight's "I think I'm probably right" comment.

56 responses so far

Query on postdoctoral training

Oct 08 2014 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Is a lab that has 12 or more concurrent postdocs really "training" them?

Is this in and of itself evidence that this is the scientific workforce?

If, say, three-quarters of them ended up in faculty appointments would this change the equation?

34 responses so far

A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells

Oct 07 2014 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

Some DAOTI asked a silly question

got the simple answer of "no", demanded data and was summarily mocked. For this he got all fronty.

because of course he already knew the answer he wanted to hear in response to his question.

This all arose in the wake of an article in the Boston Globe about the postdoc glut that contained this hilariosity.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

I bolded for the slower reader. My initial reaction was:


On to the point.

The world of "R1, TT" positions in science is incredibly diverse, yes, even within "biomedical" or just plain "biology". I repeatedly urge postdocs who feel helpless about the glut of postdocs to start by doing some research. Find out ALL of the people who have recently been hired all across the US in jobs that are somewhat remotely related to your skillset. Note, not your "interests". Your SKILLSET!

I follow this up with a call to do the same on RePORTER to find out about the vast diversity of grants that are funded by the NIH. Diversity in topic and diversity in geographical region and diversity in University or Department stature.

This is even before I tell people to get their "R1" noses out of the air and look seriously at Universities that are supposedly beneath their notice.

So what makes for a successful "competitor" for all of the jobs that are open? Is it one thing? Such as "vertically ascending eleventy systems buzzword biology science" training? That is published in Nature and derives from a 12+ postdoc lab with everyone busily trying to hump the same pantsleg?

"Everyone" here is, guess what? Your competition. And yes, if you choose to only seek out "R1, TT" jobs that are in a University that boatloads of people want to work in, applying techniques to topic domains that a dozen fellow postdocs are also doing right beside you, chasing CNS "gets" that a few scores of labs worldwide are also chasing...well, yes, you are going to be at a disadvantage if you are not training in one of those labs.

But this doesn't also mean that making all of those choices is not also putting you at a disadvantage for a "R1, TT" job if that is your goal. Because it is putting you at a disadvantage.

Vince Lombardi's famous dictum applies to academic careers.

Run to Daylight.

Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science. Take your considerable skills to a place where they are not just expected value, but represent near miraculous advance. This can be in topic, in geography, in institution type or in any other dimension. Work in an area where there are fewer of you.

Given this principle, no, a big lab does not automatically confer an advantage to obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university. According to Wikipedia the US has 108 Carnegie-approved "Very high research activity" Universities. Another 99 are in the next bin of "high research activity" and this includes places that would be quite reasonable for someone who wants to be an actual teaching + research old school professor. I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.

Would coming from a big lab be a help? Maybe. But often enough search committees at R1s (and the next bin) are looking for signs of independent thought and a unique research program. That is hard to establish in a big lab...far easier to demonstrate from a lab with one or two concurrent postdocs. Other times, the "big labs" in a field (say, Drug Abuse) are simply not structured like they are in cannon-fodder, bench-monkey, GlamourHumping, MolecularEleventy labs. Maybe this is because the overall "group" organized around the subject has Assistant Professors where those "big labs" have Nth year "postdocs". Maybe it is because this just isn't the culture of a subfield. If that is the case, then when an R1 is hiring in your domain, they aren't expecting to see a CV that competes with three other ones just like it from people sharing your lab. They are expecting to see a unique flower with easily discernible individual contribution to the last three years of work from that small lab. That type of candidate has an advantage for this particular job search.

So yeah. It is a stupid question to ask if [single unique training environment] confers an "advantage" for some thing as general as a tenure-track job at an R1 University.

I'll close with a tweet from yesterday:

and a followup

This all reminds me of a famous Twitter "independent scientist" jackhole who applied to a few elite Universities, couldn't get an offer and summarily declared all of science to be broken, corrupt, crowded with "diversity" riff raff and all sorts of other externalizing excuses. Make sure you don't fall into this trap if you are serious about succeeding in an academic career.
*actually, they say so.

21 responses so far

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