This sentence gave me cold chills.
Archive for the 'Mentoring' category
We've previously discussed the NIH F32 Fellowship designed to support postdoctoral trainees. Some of the structural limitations to a system designed on its fact to provide necessary support for necessary (additional) training overlap considerably with the problems of the F31 program designed to support graduate students.
Nevertheless, winning an individual NRSA training fellowship (graduate or postdoctoral) has all kinds of career benefits to the trainee and primary mentor so they remain an attractive option.
A question arose on the Twitts today about whether it was worth it for a postdoc in a new lab to submit an application.
— Dr Becca, PhD (@doc_becca) May 30, 2014
In my limited experience reviewing NRSA proposals in a fellowship-dedicated panel for the NIH, there is one issue that looms large in these situations.
Reviewer #1, #2 and #3: "There is no evidence in the application that sufficient research funds will be available to complete the work described during the proposed interval of funding."
NRSA fellowships, as you are aware, do not come with money to pay for the actual research. The fellowship applications require a good deal of discussion of the research the trainee plans to complete for the proposed interval of training. In most cases that research plan involves a fair amount of work that require a decent amount of research funding to complete.
The reviewers, nearly all of them in my experience, will be looking for signs of feasibility. That the PI is actually funded, funded to do something vaguely related* to the topic of the fellowship proposal and funded for the duration over which the fellowship will be active.
When the PI is not obviously funded through that interval, eyebrows are raised. Criticism is leveled.
So, what is a postdoc in a newer lab to do? What is the PI of a newish lab, without substantial funding to do?
One popular option is to find a co-mentor for the award. A co-mentor that is involved. Meaning the research plan needs to be written as a collaborative project between laboratories. Obviously, this co-mentor should have the grant support that the primary PI is lacking. It needs to be made clear that there will be some sort of research funds to draw upon to support the fellow doing some actual research.
The inclusion of "mentoring committees" and "letters of support from the Chair" are not sufficient. Those are needed, don't get me wrong, but they address other concerns** that people have about untried PIs supervising a postdoctoral fellow.
It is essential that you anticipate the above referenced Stock Critique and do your best*** to head it off.
*I have seen several highly regarded NRSA apps for which the research plan looks to me to be of R01-quality writing and design.
**We're in stock-critique land here. Stop raging about how you are more qualified than Professor AirMiles to actually mentor a postdoc.
***Obviously the application needs to present the primary mentor's funding in as positive a light as possible. Talk about startup funds, refer to local pilot grants, drop promising R01 scores if need be. You don't want to blow smoke, or draw too much attention to deficits, but a credible plan for acquiring funding goes a lot farther than ignoring the issue.
Namnezia has initiated an interesting conversation on the criteria for awarding a PhD in the sciences. A commenter over there alleged a set of rules that is nearly impossible for me to believe is true. RX claims:
No official requirements for my PhD program, it's up to the PI.
My lab is crazy. Here's the requirement: total first author impact factor: 30, total pages of paper: 20. The first graduate of my lab got 1 Neuron and 1 Nature Neuroscience paper. All the rest graduates tend to follow this pattern.
This is one reason it shouldn't be left up to the PI, there is a reason doctoral committees and doctoral program rules exist.
What "best predicts" the success of a junior scientist is handing her a laboratory and R01 level funding.
The notion that past publication record predicts anything independently from these two factors is arrant nonsense.
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.
Things I find odd in academia: PIs who don't share grants - in prep or funded - with trainees working on project. #lifeinscience
— biochem belle (@biochembelle) July 2, 2013
@biochembelle yeah that's weird. "Don't" or "won't"?
— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) July 2, 2013
@drugmonkeyblog I've observed both. Won't, as in refuse or change subject when asked - even funded proposals.
— biochem belle (@biochembelle) July 2, 2013
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.
Honestly people. What in the hell happened to old fashioned scholarship when constructing a paper? Pub Med has removed all damn excuse you might possibly have had. Especially when the relevant literature comprises only about a dozen or two score papers.
It is not too much to expect some member of this healthy author list to have 1) read the papers and 2) understood them sufficiently to cite them PROPERLY! i.e., with some modest understanding of what is and is not demonstrated by the paper you are citing.
Who the hell is training these kids these days?
Yes, I am literally shaking my cane.
One duffymeg at Dynamic Ecology blog has written a post in which it is wondered:
How do you decide which manuscripts to work on first? Has that changed over time? How much data do you have sitting around waiting to be published? Do you think that amount is likely to decrease at any point? How big a problem do you think the file drawer effect is?
This was set within the background of having conducted too many studies and not finding enough time to write them all up. I certainly concur that by the time one has been rolling as a laboratory for many years, the unpublished data does have a tendency to stack up, despite our best intentions. This is not ideal but it is reality. I get it. My prior comments about not letting data go unpublished was addressing that situation where someone (usually a trainee) wanted to write up and submit the work but someone else (usually the PI) was blocking it.
To the extent that I can analyze my de facto priority, I guess the first priority is my interest of the moment. If I have a few thoughts or new references to integrate with a project that is in my head...sure I might open up the file and work on it for a few hours. (Sometimes I have been pleasantly surprised to find a manuscript is a lot closer to submitting than I had remembered.) This is far from ideal and can hardly be described as a priority. It is my reality though. And I cling to it because dangit...shouldn't this be the primary motivation?
Second, I prioritize things by the grant cycle. This is a constant. If there is a chance of submitting a manuscript now, and it will have some influence on the grant game, this is a motivator for me. It may be because I am trying to get it accepted before the next grant deadline. Maybe before the 30 day lead time before grant review when updating news of an accepted manuscript is permitted. Perhaps because I am anticipating the Progress Report section for a competing continuation. Perhaps I just need to lay down published evidence that we can do Technique Y.
Third, I prioritize the trainees. For various reasons I take a firm interest in making sure that trainees in the laboratory get on publications as an author. Middle author is fine but I want to chart a clear course to the minimum of this. The next step is prioritizing first author papers...this is most important for the postdocs, of course, and not strictly necessary for the rotation students. It's a continuum. In times past I may have had more affection for the notion of trainees coming in and working on their "own project" from more or less scratch until they got to the point of a substantial first-author effort. That's fine and all but I've come to the conclusion I need to do better than this. Luckily, this dovetails with the point raised by duffymeg, i.e., that we tend to have data stacking up that we haven't written up yet. If I have something like this, I'll encourage trainees to pick it up and massage it into a paper.
Finally, I will cop to being motivated by short term rewards. The closer a manuscript gets to the submittable stage, the more I am engaged. As I've mentioned before, this tendency is a potential explanation for a particular trainee complaint. A comment from Arne illustrates the point.
on one side I more and more hear fellow Postdocs complaining of having difficulties writing papers (and tellingly the number of writing skill courses etc offered to Postdocs is steadily increasing at any University I look at) and on the other hand, I hear PIs complaining about the slowliness or incapabability of their students or Postdocs in writing papers. But then, often PIs don’t let their students and Postdocs write papers because they think they should be in the lab making data (data that might not get published as your post and the comments show) and because they are so slow in writing.
It drives me mad when trainees are supposed to be working on a manuscript and nothing occurs for weeks and weeks. Sure, I do this too. (And perhaps my trainees are bitching about how I'm never furthering manuscripts I said I'd take a look at.) But from my perspective grad students and postdocs are on a much shorter time clock and they are the ones who most need to move their CV along. Each manuscript (especially first author) should loom large for them. So yes, perceptions of lack of progress on writing (whether due to incompetence*, laziness or whatever) are a complaint of PIs. And as I've said before it interacts with his or her motivation to work on your draft. I don't mind if it looks like a lot of work needs to be done but I HATE it when nothing seems to change following our interactions and my editorial advice. I expect the trainees to progress in their writing. I expect them to learn both from my advice and from the evidence of their own experiences with peer review. I expect the manuscript to gradually edge towards greater completion.
One of the insights that I gained from my own first few papers is that I was really hesitant to give the lab head anything short of what I considered to be a very complete manuscript. I did so and I think it went over well on that front. But it definitely slowed my process down. Now that I have no concerns about my ability to string together a coherent manuscript in the end, I am a firm advocate of throwing half-baked Introduction and Discussion sections around in the group. I beg my trainees to do this and to work incrementally forward from notes, drafts, half-baked sentences and paragraphs. I have only limited success getting them to do it, I suspect because of the same problem that I had. I didn't want to look stupid and this kept me from bouncing drafts off my PI as a trainee.
Now that I think the goal is just to get the damn data in press, I am less concerned about the blah-de-blah in the Intro and Discussion sections.
But as I often remind myself, when it is their first few papers, the trainees want their words in press. The way they wrote them.
*this stuff is not Shakespeare, I reject this out of hand
Fascinating topic raised by @rxnm_ on the twitts today:
Hard to be excited that my work helped someone else get money they can use to pay me to continue being a temp.
I am not ungrateful and don't think PI's don't deserve grants on their own merit. It is just hard to feel it as a shared success.
This is one of the realities of the training arc. When you are a postdoc in a lab, part of what you are doing is servicing the grant game. Whether you realize this or not. You are going to be expected to work on topics related to the lab's current funding (in most cases, biomed, ymmv, etc, etc). In this your work will be included in progress reports and in future grant applications as well. Your ("your") papers will be used by the PI to support her reputation as a productive scientist. To shore up the appearance that when she proposes a given research plan, by glory some cool stuff will get published as a result!
But the NIH grant process can be lengthy. Submit a proposal in Feb/March for review in Jun/Jul...Council review in Sep...and first possible funding Dec 1. And we all know that means no budget, Continuing Resolution and good luck seeing your money until late Feb, early March. If the grant doesn't score well the first time, it must be revised in Nov, reviewed in Feb...Council in May..for funding in Jul. Eighteen glorious months.
So chances are very good that the hard work of the postdoc will end up in tangible grant support results for the laboratory that only the PI is going to "enjoy". Well, and the techs. And of course any more-junior trainees....and....FUTURE POSTDOCS aaaaarrrrrghhhhhhh YOUR COMPETITION!!!!!!! arrrgggghhh!!!! dammit!
How many postdocs think about the labors of the prior trainees when they enter a laboratory on a funded grant? And how they are benefiting from the work of those prior individuals? How many late-stage postdocs who are starting to feel pretty damn exploited when that grant based on their work, that they wrote half* of, gets funded just as they are leaving**? I wonder if any of them think about the grant that funded their first three years in the lab...
**leaving for a professorial job, no biggie. but what if there has been a great laboratory shrinking due to grant loss and the timing is such that the new grant comes in too late for the current postdoc?
'Tis the time of the year for interviewing graduate school candidates. The exact purposes vary from a significant selection process to "just make sure s/he isn't completely bonkers, okay?".
Michael Eisen asked on the Twitts:
what do people think are the most useful things to ask in a 30m grad school interview?
After a wisecrack or two I came up with a serious one.
"tell me about the moment you first realized you weren't the smartest person in the room?"
What would you suggest, Dear Reader?
One of the sounder bits of usual advice to new grant writers is to get some examples from established scientists. The closer to your field and the closer to the agency you are soliciting, the better.
All true. I can't imagine someone drafting a credible NIH application from the instructions alone.
Where I think the typical advice goes wrong is in emphasizing successful applications. As if this is all you need.
I think new grant seekers should ask their friends and senior colleagues for the losers too. With, preferably, the reviews.
There is much about the NIH review process and one's likely success within it that can be gleaned best from comparing successful and unsuccessful grants.
UPDATED: A prior post on what is wrong with the NIAID sample grants.