Archive for the 'Mentoring' category

Another day, another report on the postdocalypse

As mentioned in Science, a new report from the US Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have deduced we have a problem with too many PhDs and not enough of the jobs that they want.

The report responds to many years of warning signs that the U.S. biomedical enterprise may be calcifying in ways that create barriers for the incoming generation of researchers. One of the biggest challenges is the gulf between the growing number of young scientists who are qualified for and interested in becoming academic researchers and the limited number of tenure-track research positions available. Many new Ph.D.s spend long periods in postdoctoral positions with low salaries, inadequate training, and little opportunity for independent research. Many postdocs pursue training experiences expecting that they will later secure an academic position, rather than pursuing a training experience that helps them compete for the range of independent careers available outside of academia, where the majority will be employed. As of 2016, for those researchers who do transition into independent research positions, the average age for securing their first major NIH independent grant is 43 years old, compared to 36 years old in 1980.

No mention (in the executive summary / PR blurb) that the age of first R01 has been essentially unchanged for a decade despite the NIH ESI policy and the invention of the K99 which is limited by years-since-PhD.

No mention of the reason that we have so many postdocs, which is the uncontrolled production of ever more PhDs.

On to the actionable bullet points that interest me.

Work with the National Institutes of Health to increase the number of individuals in staff scientist positions to provide more stable, non-faculty research opportunities for the next generation of researchers. Individuals on a staff scientist track should receive a salary and benefits commensurate with their experience and responsibilities.

This is a recommendation for research institutions but we all need to think about this. The NCI launched the R50 mechanism in 2016 and they have 49 of them on the books at the moment. I had some thoughts on why this is a good idea here and here. The question now, especially for those in the know with cancer research, is whether this R50 is being used to gain stability and independence for the needy awardee or whether it is just further larding up the labs of Very Important Cancer PIs.

Expand existing awards or create new competitive awards for postdoctoral researchers to advance their own independent research and support professional development toward an independent research career. By July 1, 2023, there should be a fivefold increase in the number of individual research fellowship awards and career development awards for postdoctoral researchers granted by NIH.

As we know the number of NIH fellowships has remained relatively fixed relative to the huge escalation of "postdocs" funded on research grant mechanisms. We really don't know the degree to which independent fellowships simply annoint the chosen (population wise) versus aid the most worthy and deserving candidates to stand out. Will quintupling the F32s magically make more faculty slots available? I tend to think not.

As we know, if you really want to grease the skids to faculty appointment the route is the K99/R00 or basically anything that means the prospective hire " comes with money". Work on that, NIH. Quintuple the K99s, not the F32s. And hand out more R03 or R21 or invent up some other R-mechanism that prospective faculty can apply for in place of "mentored" K awards. I just had this brainstorm. R-mechs (any really) that get some cutesy acronym (like B-START) and can be applied for by basically any non-faculty person from anywhere. Catch is, it works like the R00 part of the K99/R00. Only awarded upon successful competition for a faculty job and the offer of a competitive startup.

Ensure that the duration of all R01 research grants supporting early-stage investigators is no less than five years to enable the establishment of resilient independent research programs.

Sure. And invent up some "next award" special treatment for current ESI. and then a third-award one. and so on.

Or, you know, fix the problem for everyone which is that too many mouths at the trough have ruined the cakewalk that experienced investigators had during the eighties.

Phase in a cap – three years suggested – on salary support for all postdoctoral researchers funded by NIH research project grants (RPGs). The phase-in should occur only after NIH undertakes a robust pilot study of sufficient size and duration to assess the feasibility of this policy and provide opportunities to revise it. The pilot study should be coupled to action on the previous recommendation for an increase in individual awards.

This one got the newbie faculty all het up on the twitters.


being examples if you are interested.

They are, of course, upset about two things.

First, "the person like me". Which of course is what drives all of our anger about this whole garbage fire of a career situation that has developed. You can call it survivor guilt, self-love, arrogance, whatever. But it is perfectly reasonable that we don't like the Man doing things that mean people just like us would have washed out. So people who were not super stars in 3 years of postdoc'ing are mad.

Second, there's a hint of "don't stop the gravy train just as I passed your damn insurmountable hurdle". If you are newb faculty and read this and get all angree and start telling me how terrible I need to sit down an introspect a bit, friend. I can wait.

New faculty are almost universally against my suggestion that we all need to do our part and stop training graduate students. Less universally, but still frequently, against the idea that they should start structuring their career plans for a technician-heavy, trainee-light arrangement. With permanent career employees that do not get changed out for new ones every 3-5 years like leased Priuses either.

Our last little stupid poll confirmed that everyone things 3-5 concurrent postdocs is just peachy for even the newest lab and gee whillikers where are they to come from?

This new report will go nowhere, just like all the previous ones that reach essentially the same conclusion and make similar recommendations. Because it is all about the

1) Mouths at the trough.
2) Available slops.

We continue to breed more mouths PHDs.

And the American taxpayers, via their duly appointed representatives in Congress, show no interest in radically increasing the budget for slops science.

And even if Congress trebled or quintupled the NIH budget, all evidence suggests we'd just to the same thing all over again. Mint more PhDs like crazee and wonder in another 10-15 years why careers still suck.

58 responses so far

Today in NIHGrant Special Flower Pleading

Oct 24 2016 Published by under Mentoring, NIH, NIH Careerism

It started off with a tweet suggesting the NIH game is rigged (bigly) against a "solo theoretician"...

interesting. Then there was a perfectly valid observation about the way "productivity" is assessed without the all-important denominators of either people or grant funding:

good point. Then there was the reveal:

"It's her first NIH application".

HAHHAHHHAAA. AYFK? Are you new here? Yes. Noobs get hammered occasionally. They even get hammered with stock critique type of comments. But for goodness sake we cannot possible draw conclusions about whether "NIH grant review can handle a solo theoretician" from one bloody review!

This guy doubled down:

Right? A disappointing first grant review is going to "drive a talented theoretical physicist out of biology". You can't make this stuff up if you tried.

and tripled down:

See, it's really, really special, this flower. And a given "line of critique" (aka, StockCritique of subfieldX or situationY) is totes only a problem in this one situation.

News friggin flash. The NIH grant getting game is not for the dilettante or the faint of heart. It takes work and it takes stamina. It takes a thick hide.

If you happen to get lucky with your first proposal, or if you bat higher than average in success rate, hey, bully for you. But this is not the average expected value across the breadth of the NIH.

And going around acting like you (or your buddies or mentees or departmentmates or collaborators) are special, and acting as though is a particular outrage and evidence of a broken system if you are not immediately awarded a grant on first try, is kind of dickish.

There is a more important issue here and it is the mentoring of people that you wish to help become successful at winning NIH grant support. Especially when you know that what they do is perhaps a little outside of the mainstream for a given IC or any IC. Or for any study section that you are aware of.

In my opinion it is mentoring malpractice to stomp about agreeing that this shows the system is awful and that it will never fund them. Such a response actually encourages them to drop out because it makes the future seem hopeless. My opinion is that proper mentoring involves giving the noobs a realistic view of the system and a realistic view of how hard it is going to be to secure funding. And my view is that proper mentoring is encouraging them to take the right steps forward to enhance their chances. Read between the summary statement lines. Don't get distracted with the StockCritiques that so infuriate you. Don't use this one exemplar to go all nonlinear about the ErrorZ OF FACT and INCompETENtz reviewers and whatnot. Show the newcomer how to search RePORTER to find the closest funded stuff. Talk about study sections and FOA and Program Officers. Work the dang steps!

Potnia Theron was a lot nicer about this than I was.

That post also got me wandering back to an older post by boehninglab about being a Working Class Scientist. Which is an excellent read.

30 responses so far

An issue of data ownership

Mar 23 2016 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Postdoctoral Training

An interesting retraction of an Editorial expression of concern hit the Twitts:

The Editors and publisher have withdrawn an Expression of Concern previously contributed by noted neuroscientist David Amaral, with his agreement.

The original version of this Comment ‘Expression of Concern’ published by D. Amaral has been withdrawn by the Publisher in relation to the paper: ‘Organization of connections of the basal and accessory basal nuclei in the monkey amygdala’ by Eva Bonda, published in Volume 12, pp. 1971-1992 (doi: 10.1046/j.1460-9568.2000.00082.x). The review carried out at the University of California at Davis in December 2001 (brought to the publisher's attention in February 2016) concluded that the allegation against Eva Bonda described in the commentary ‘Expression of Concern’ by D. Amaral did not meet The Office of Research Integrity's definition of research misconduct, and was not pursued further.

That November 2000 Expression of Concern read, in part:

It has recently come to my attention that Eva Bonda has published a paper in the European Journal of Neuroscience entitled, ‘Organization of connections of the basal and accessory basal nuclei in the monkey amygdala’ ( Bonda, 2000). The data described in this paper were produced by my students and me at the University of California, Davis. Support for carrying out the experiments that produced these data was provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, through grant MH 41479 for which I am the Principal Investigator.
..The publication of this single-authored paper was totally unauthorized. Eva Bonda was a postdoctoral fellow in our laboratory.

Ok, so PI asserts ownership of data collected in his lab. Fine, fine... Typical story of postdoc who thinks that she owns and controls her data? And the PI was blocking publication for reasons unknown. We all have been down the various roads of he said/she said often enough to imagine a variety of scenarios where we might alternately side with the trainee or the postdoc.


She had access to the preparations that were described in the paper. However, she did not carry out any of the experimental procedures involved in making the tracer injections reported in this paper. These injections were made by other students in the laboratory and by me. Moreover, other than processing the tissue from a small minority of the reported cases, it was the technical staff of our laboratory rather than Eva Bonda that carried out the histological processing of the reported experiments.

Ah. Well that sounds bad. This suggests it is a little more like theft of credit from more people than just the PI. I happen to disagree with the not-infrequent pose of postdocs on the internet that they own and control "their" data that they generated in the laboratory of a given PI. But that is much more of an arguable position than is taking data generated by many people other than one's self and asserting control/ownership from a position that is not the PI.

Amaral finishes by making the charge of academic misconduct against Bonda very explicit:

In my view, the appropriation and publication of these data is a serious breach of scientific ethics. I have asked the Editor of the European Journal of Neuroscience to take appropriate action including publication of this Expression of Concern. Upon consultation with the Office of Research Integrity, Public Health Service, US Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for protecting the integrity of NIH funded research programs, the UC Davis campus has agreed to initiate a review of the allegations of research misconduct. Based on the outcome of this review, further actions, including request for full retraction, may be taken concerning this.

Of course, the recent retraction of the Expression of Concern indicates that Bonda, the postdoc, was exonerated of misconduct charges in 2001!

Wow. Why did it take Amaral 15 years to retract his accusations? This seems spectacularly dickish to me.

And given the fact that the postdoc was not found guilty of misconduct by the University, it really questions the factual basis of his assertions in the original Expression of Concern. If I were the postdoc in question, I might have launched a counter accusation of professional misconduct. Depending, of course, on the details of the inquiry and what each party did and did not do. The exoneration of the postdoc may simply have been a lack of proof of intent, rather than any disagreement over the facts.

I notice, however, an interesting poll put up by an individual who both was RTing the tweets that alerted me to this situation and apparently co-published with Amaral.

Gee, I wonder what the nature of the dispute was between Amaral and Bonda?

The subject of this poll is the juxtaposition of "good data" with "high quality standards" of the PI. Given what Amaral does, I'm going out on a limb and assuming we are talking about how pretty the immunohistochemical images are or are not (the Bonda paper is nearly all immuno-staining pictures).

19 responses so far

On whitening the CV

I heard yet another news story* recently about the beneficial effects of whitening the resume for job seekers.

I wasn't paying close attention so I don't know the specific context. 

But suffice it to say, minority job applicants have been found (in studies) to get more call-backs for job interviews when the evidence of their non-whiteness on their resume is minimized, concealed or eradicated. 

Should academic trainees and job seekers do the same?

It goes beyond using only your initials if your first name is stereotypically associated with, for example, being African-Anerican. Or using an Americanized nickname to try to communicate that you are highly assimilated Asian-Anerican. 

The CV usually includes awards, listed by foundation or specific award title. "Ford Foundation" or "travel award for minority scholars" or similar can give a pretty good clue. But you cannot omit those! The awards, particularly the all-important "evidence of being competitively funded", are a key part of a trainee's CV. 

I don't know how common it is, but I do have one colleague (I.e., professorial rank at this point) for whom a couple of those training awards were the only clear evidence on the CV of being nonwhite. This person stopped listing these items and/or changed how they were listed to minimize detection. So it happens.

Here's the rub. 

I come at this from the perspective of one who doesn't think he is biased against minority trainees and wants to know if prospective postdocs, graduate students or undergrads are of Federally recognized underrepresented status.


Because it changes the ability of my lab to afford them. NIH has this supplement program to fund underrepresented trainees. There are other sources of support as well. 

This changes whether I can take someone into my lab. So if I'm full up and I get an unsolicited email+CV I'm more likely to look at it if it is from an individual that qualifies for a novel funding source. 

Naturally, the applicant can't know in any given situation** if they are facing implicit bias against, or my explicit bias for, their underrepresentedness. 

So I can't say I have any clear advice on whitening up the academic CV. 

*probably Kang et al.

**Kang et al caution that institutional pro-diversity statements are not associated with increased call-backs or any minimization of the bias.

29 responses so far

We all could use a little managerial advice like this

Mar 13 2016 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring

Passed along by a very kind soul....I think there is a little something here for all of us.

14 responses so far

Grad students are hilarious

Mar 09 2016 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Postgraduate Training

Scene: Laboratory of Hibernation Studies

PI: "We need to discuss your thesis plans...what have you come up with so far?"

Grad Student: "Bears"

PI: "What? Dude, we have a sweet ground squirrel model all ready to go. What do you want to use it for?"

GS: "I want to start up a bear lab. It'll be great."

PI: -Dead Stare-

GS: "Bears! Hibernation! .....get it?"


GS: "Meanie"

16 responses so far

Blooding the trainees

In that most English of pastimes, fox hunting, the noobs are smeared about the face with the blood of the poor unfortunate fox after dismembering by hound has been achieved.

I surmise the goal is to get the noob used to the less palatable aspects of their chosen sporting endeavor. 

Anyway, speaking of manuscript review and eventual publication, do you plan a course for new trainees in the lab?

I'm wondering if you have any explicit goals for them- Should a mentor try to get new postdocs or grads a pub, any pub as quickly and easily as possible?

Or should they be thrown into a multi-journal fight so as to fully experience the joys of desk rejection, ultimate denial after four rounds of review somewhere and the final relief of just dumping that Frankensteinian monster of a paper in a lowly journal and being done. 

Do you plan any of this out for your newest trainees?

19 responses so far

I'm 14 carat......want to look good for the PI, mmm

Have you ever been in a lab with a golden-child trainee?

Was it you?

61 responses so far

The post-triage stage

Nov 18 2015 Published by under Mentoring, Music

Holdworth Cheesington III Endowed Chair Professor K. Kristofferson has a few thoughts for you, as well.

5 responses so far

Advice for faculty

Nov 17 2015 Published by under Mentoring, Music

From Holdworth Cheesington III Endowed Chair Professor K. Kristofferson:

5 responses so far

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