Archive for the 'Postgraduate Training' category

Don’t be a jerk when asking for a meeting

A recent twitt cued a thought.

Don't ask your staff for a meeting without giving an indication of what it is about.

"Hey, I need to see you" can be very anxiety provoking.

"Come see me about the upcoming meeting Abstracts deadline" is not that hard to do.

"We need to talk about the way we're doing this experiment" is duck soup.

Try to remember this when summoning your techs or trainees.

3 responses so far

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.


and


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 am.....you 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?

Aaaanyway.
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.
and
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.

63 responses so far

Don't get too big for your britches, jr faculty: trainee edition

Apr 10 2018 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

As you know I am not a super big fan of NIH grant review sentiments which boil down to "tut, tut, Dr. Junior Faculty, let's not get too big for your britches. Try this small starter award and see how you do with that before you get to play with the big kids."

I believe things like size of grant and number of grants (and relatedly, overall total direct costs) should be taken on a case by case basis. And I believe that modern "junior" faculty are pretty old, phenomenally broadly experienced and generally pretty capable compared to junior faculty minted in, say, the early to mid eighties.

The question of the day, however, has more to do with lab size and specifically to do with the number of academic trainees.

Is there a limit to the number of grad students, postdocs or grad students plus postdocs that most junior faculty should be training?

My gut take is "heck yes". I don't know that I've ever had to act up this. I can't recall a time when I ever had to judge a R-mechanism or F-mechanism where the PI or supervisor (respectively) was seemingly overburdened with trainees. But my gut says that this is possible. There would be times where I might raise an eyebrow about how many concurrent trainees a junior (or senior, but that's another argument) PI might be proposing to have. Whether that be due to taking a look at the "training environment" for a F32/F31 application or in looking at relative commitment levels for a new Rproposal there are seemingly times that this might come up. Conceivably.

My gut feeling on this is guided by my own experience which, as we know, is wildly out of touch with y'all.

We have had one or two conversations about what people think of as a small, medium or large lab. My takeaway from these is that people think a 6-7 person lab is average, medium, normal and basically expected value.

To me this is "on the larger side".

I have run anywhere from 0-4 concurrent academic trainees and when I am at 4 postdocs I definitely feel a bit stretched.

I have been doing this gig for some time now. When I was a wee newbie PI I thought that two concurrent trainees was pretty much good. Three was not something that I thought was sustainable.

Whatcha think, Dear Reader?

Can most junior PIs handle 5 or more concurrent academic trainees? Should they just take as many as possible?

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*I solemnly swear this is not a troll to further complain about the training of too many PhDs.

24 responses so far

PI seeks postdoc

Mar 23 2018 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

Every PI wants only the most brilliant, creative and motivated trainees that will put in insane levels of effort to advance the lab agenda.

We know this because it is how they write their postdoc solicitation blurbs.

This is not what is consistently available.

I know this because a consistent backchannel theme of my dubious life online as science careers nerd features PIs complaining about their trainees.

My usual response is to point out that they became PI due to being much better than average. So of course most of their trainees aren't going to be as good as they are*.

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*were

17 responses so far

Query of the Day: When did you realize publication was key?

Jan 12 2017 Published by under Postgraduate Training

This question is for those who have ever entered a doctoral program in the sciences.

When did you realize that it was really, really important for you to publish first-author papers as a graduate student?


I recall that I really thought that the requirements and goals of grad school were to pass the first year exam (which was a research project presentation), pass the qualifying exam and write and defend a monolithic thesis describing a body of independently dreamed-up and designed research that I conducted myself.

I became aware of a bit of a debate about monolithic theses versus publications in the opinion of various faculty somewhere in my 2nd or 3rd years. So I knew of the idea that some Professors thought that three first-author publications stapled together with a cursory introduction and summary material was superior to the monolithic thesis.

I sided with the monolithic-thesis types and this, I think, let me continue to mislead myself about the importance of publications for my career. I also had career aspirations (right up until about six months before my first faculty appointment started to crystallize as reality) that did not necessarily require a strong publication record from graduate studies. Finally, I had the not-uncommon realization that I was going to have to do some postdoc work after graduate school, and the accompanying notion that postdoc work was when you really got steaming on publications, that let me off the hook.

So my answer would have to be that I didn't really grasp how important first-author pubs in grad school would be until I was late-postdoc and looking to land a faculty gig (and grants). I had probably the first dawning realization midway through my first postdoc. I would have to say that I had no serious understanding of this throughout most of grad school. I had ZERO concept of this as a graduate school applicant and graduate school interviewee.

57 responses so far

Predictors of Grad School Publications

Jan 11 2017 Published by under Postgraduate Training

A new paper in PLoS ONE purports to report on the relationship between traditional graduate school selection factors and graduate school success.

Joshua D. Hall, Anna B. O’Connell, Jeanette G. Cook. Predictors of Student Productivity in Biomedical Graduate School Applications. 2017, PLoS ONE, Published: January 11, 2017
http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169121 [Publisher Link]

The setup:

The cohort studied comprised 280 graduate students who entered the BBSP at UNC from 2008-2010; 195 had graduated with a PhD at the time of this study (July 2016), 45 were still enrolled, and 40 graduated with a Master's degree or withdrew. The cohort included all of the BBSP students who matriculated from 2008-2010.

The major outcome measure:

Publications by each student during graduate school were quantified with a custom Python script that queried Pubmed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed) using author searches for each student's name paired with their research advisor's name. The script returned XML attributes (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/bsd/licensee/elements_alphabetical.html) for all publications and generated the number of first-author publications and the total number of publications (including middle authorship) for each student/advisor pair.

For analysis they grouped the students into bins of 3+, 1-2 or 0 first author pubs with a '0+' category for zero first-author pubs but at least one middle-author publication.

OMG! Nothing predicts graduate school performance (especially those evil, evil, biased - I mentioned evil, right? - standardized scores).

Yes, even people who score below the 50th percentile on quantitative or verbal GRE land first-author publications! (Apple-polishing GPA kids don't seem to fare particularly well, either, plenty of first author publications earned by the 3.0-3.5 riff-raff.)

Oh bai the wai...prior research experience doesn't predict anything either.

Guess what did predict first author publications? Recommendation scores. That's right. The Good Old Boys/Girls Club of biased recommendations from undergraduate professors is predictive of the higher producing graduate students.

As the authors note in the Discussion, this analysis focused only on student characteristics. It could not account for the mentor lab, interaction of student characteristics with the mentor lab characteristics and the like.

I'll let you Readers mull this one over for a bit but I was struck by one thing.

We may be talking at cross purposes when we discuss how application metrics are used to predict graduate student success because we do not have the same idea of success in mind.

This analysis suggests the primary measure of success of a graduate student is the degree to which they succeeded in being a good data-monkey who produces a lot of publishable stuff within the context of their given research laboratory. And by this measure, nothing is very predictive, going by the Hall et al analysis, except the recommendation letter of those who are trying to assess the whole package from their varied perspectives of "I know it when I see it*".

Grad student publication number is, of course, related to who will go on to be a success as a creative independent scientist because of the very common belief that past performance predicts future performance. Those who exit grad school with zero pubs are facing an uphill battle to attain a faculty position. Those with 3+ first author pubs will generally be assumed to be more in the hunt as a potential future faculty member all along the postdoctoral arc.

Assuming all else equal.

This is another way we talk past each other about standardized scores, etc.

The choice of the PI who is trying to select a graduate student for their lab can assume "all else equal". Approximately. Same lab, same basic environment. We don't have this information from Hall et al. and I think it would be pretty difficult to do the study in a way that used same-lab as a covariate. Not impossible...you just are going to need a very large boat.

I think of it this way. Maybe there are some labs where everyone gets 3 or more first-author papers? Maybe there are some where it takes a very special individual indeed to get more than one in the course of graduate school? And without knowing if the student characteristics determine the host lab, we have to assume random (ish) assignment. Thus it could be the case that the better GREquant, for example, gives a slight advantage within lab but this is wiped out by the variability between-labs.

The choice of a selection committee for graduate programs can be less confident about all else being equal. They have to ask what sort of student can be successful across all of the lab environments in the program. Or successful in the majority of them. The Hall et al. data say that many types can be. But we are still asking a question of whether the training environment is such an overwhelming factor that almost nothing about the individual matters. This seems to be the message

If so, why are we bothering to select students at all? Why have them apply with any details other than the recommendation letters?

Maybe this is another place we are speaking at cross purposes. Some of us may still believe that the point of graduate school selection is to train the faculty (or insert any other specific career outcome if relevant) of tomorrow. Part of the goal, therefore, may be to select people on the basis of who we think would be best at that future role**, regardless of the variation in papers generated with first-author credit as a graduate student.

Is the Hall et al. paper based on a straw notion of "success"?

I think you've probably noticed, Dear Reader, that my opinion is that the career of grant-funded PI takes some personality characteristics that are not easily captured by the number of first-author pubs as a graduate student. Grit and resilience. Intrinsic motivation to git-er-done. Awareness of the structural, career-type aspects. At least a minimal amount of interpersonal skills.

What I am not often on about is the fact that I think that given approximately equal conditions, smarts matters. This is not saying that smarts is the only thing. If you are smart as all heck and you don't have what it takes to be productive or to take a hit, you aren't going to do well. It's the flip side. If two people do have grit and resilience and motivation...the smarter person is going to have an easier time of it or achieve more for the same effort**. On average.

And this is a test that is not performed in the new paper. Figuring out how to compare outcomes within laboratory groups might be an advance on this question.

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*When I write recommendation letters for undergrads who have worked with me I do not have access to their standardized scores or grades. I have my subjective impressions of their smarts and industry from their work in my lab to go by. That's it. Maybe other people formally review a transcript and scores before writing a letter? I doubt it but I guess that is possible.

**Regarding that future role, again it may be a question of what is most important for success. Within our own lab, we are assuming that differential opportunity to get publications is not a thing. So since this part of the environment is fixed, we should be thinking about what is going to lead to enhanced success down the road, given conceivable other environments. From the standpoint of a Program, the same? or do we just feel as though the best success in our Program is enough to ensure the best success in any subsequent environment? The way we look at this may be part of what keeps us talking past each other about what graduate selection is for.

18 responses so far

Advice for Prospective Graduate Students

Jan 06 2017 Published by under Postgraduate Training

There is a lot of great advice of the usual sort floating around - talk to current grad students and postdocs about Department, Program and Lab culture. Median time to completion*. So I won't repeat that.

But here's one thing you may not hear about.

Ask the Program Director for the past two 5-year reviews of the Program. Yes, graduate training programs get peer reviewed on a periodic basis. Every 5 years in my limited experience.

Ask to see the review. Absent that ask for the top five most serious criticisms. In fact you should ask this latter question if anyone who interviews you to get a sense of how much the Program is integrated vs ad hoc.

Here's another important question to ask the interviewing faculty: "Who are the most recent 5-10 faculty appointments to come from your Program alumni?" The key here is to ask it on the spot so they can't look it up.

The most important thing here will not be the actual-factual answers. It will be how the faculty respond to your inquiries.

Good luck.

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*Please tell me every prospect asks about the median time to PhD?

UPDATE: I meant this as a step to take after you are invited to interview or offered admission. A step for you to take to help decide which program to attend. Although I suppose even if you only get one offer it is helpful to know what to expect or watch out for.

74 responses so far

Ethics reminder for scientists

If the lab head tells the trainees or techs that a specific experimental outcome* must be generated by them, this is scientific misconduct.

If the lab head says a specific experimental outcome is necessary to publish the paper, this may be very close to misconduct or it may be completely aboveboard, depending on context. The best context to set is a constant mantra that any outcome teaches us more about reality and that is the real goal.

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*no we are not talking about assay validation and similar technical development stuff.

15 responses so far

First rule of Science Mentor Club

The very first rule of PI/mentorship is get your trainees first author publications.

This is the thing of biggest lasting career impact that you can determine almost with absolute control.

Yes, things happen but if you are not getting the vast majority of your trainees first author pubs you are screwing up as a mentor.

So. 2017 is about to start. Do you have a publication plan for all of your postdocs and later-stage graduate students?

Obviously I am in favor of active management of trainees' publishing plans. I assume some favor a more hands-off approach?

"Let the postdoc figure it out" has an appeal. Makes them earn those pubs and sets them up for later hard times.

The problem is, if they fail to get a publication, or enough, their career takes a bad hit. So ability to grunt it out isn't ever used.

42 responses so far

Grant Supplements and Diversity Efforts

The NIH announced an "encouragement" for NIMH BRAINI PIs to apply for the availability of Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (Admin Supp).

Administrative supplements for those who are unaware, are extra amounts of money awarded to an existing NIH grant. These are not reviewed by peer reviewers in a competitive manner. The decision lies entirely with Program Staff*. The Diversity supplement program in my experience and understanding amounts to a fellowship- i.e., mostly just salary support - for a qualifying trainee. (Blog note: Federal rules on underrepresentation apply....this thread will not be a place to argue about who is properly considered an underrepresented individual, btw.) The BRANI-directed the encouragement lays out the intent:

The NIH diversity supplement program offers an opportunity for existing BRAIN awardees to request additional funds to train and mentor the next generation of researchers from underrepresented groups who will contribute to advancing the goals of the BRAIN Initiative. Program Directors/Principal Investigators (PDs/PIs) of active BRAIN Initiative research program grants are thus encouraged to identify individuals from groups nationally underrepresented to support and mentor under the auspices of the administrative supplement program to promote diversity. Individuals from the identified groups are eligible throughout the continuum from high school to the faculty level. The activities proposed in the supplement application must fall within the scope of the parent grant, and both advance the objectives of the parent grant and support the research training and professional development of the supplement candidate. BRAIN Initiative PDs/PIs are strongly encouraged to incorporate research education activities that will help prepare the supplement candidate to conduct rigorous research relevant to the goals of the BRAIN Initiative

I'll let you read PA-16-288 for the details but we're going to talk generally about the Administrative Supplement process so it is worth reprinting this bit:

Administrative supplement, the funding mechanism being used to support this program, can be used to cover cost increases that are associated with achieving certain new research objectives, as long as the research objectives are within the original scope of the peer reviewed and approved project, or the cost increases are for unanticipated expenses within the original scope of the project. Any cost increases need to result from making modifications to the project that would increase or preserve the overall impact of the project consistent with its originally approved objectives and purposes.

Administrative supplements come in at least three varieties, in my limited experience. [N.b. You can troll RePORTER for supplements using "S1" or "S2" in the right hand field for the Project Number / Activity Code search limiter. Unfortunately I don't think you get much info on what the supplement itself is for.] The support for underrepresented trainees is but one category. There are also topic-directed FOAs that are issued now and again because a given I or C wishes to quickly spin up research on some topic or other. Sex differences. Emerging health threats. Etc. Finally, there are those one might categorize within the "unanticipated expenses" and "increase or preserve the overall impact of the project" clauses in the block I've quoted above.

I first became aware of the Administrative Supplement in this last context. I was OUTRAGED, let me tell you. It seemed to be a way by which the well-connected and highly-established use their pet POs to enrich their programs beyond what they already had via competition. Some certain big labs seemed to be constantly supplemented on one award or other. Me, I sure had "unanticipated expenses" when I was just getting started. I had plenty of things that I could have used a few extra modules of cash to pay for to enhance the impact of my projects. I did not have any POs looking to hand me any supplements unasked and when I hinted very strongly** about my woes there was no help to be had***. I did not like administrative supplements as practiced one bit. Nevertheless, I was young and still believed in the process. I believed that I needn't pursue the supplement avenue too hard because I was going to survive into the mid career stretch and just write competing apps for what I needed. God, I was naive.

Perhaps. Perhaps if I'd fought harder for supplements they would have been awarded. Or maybe not.

When I became aware of the diversity supplements, I became an instant fan. This was much more palatable. It meant that at any time a funded PI found a likely URM recruit to science, they could get the support within about 6 weeks. Great for summer research experiences for undergrads, great for unanticipated postdocs. This still seems like a very good thing to me. Good for the prospective trainees. Good for diversity-in-science goals.

The trouble is that from the perspective of the PIs in the audience, this is just another rich-get-richer scheme whereby free labor is added to the laboratory accounts of the already advantaged "haves" of the NIH game. Salary is freed up on the research grants to spend on more toys, reagents or yet another postdoc. This mechanism is only available to a PI who has research grant funding that has a year or more left to run. Since it remains an administrative decision it is also subject to buddy-buddy PI/PO relationship bias. Now, do note that I have always heard from POs in my ICs of closest concern that they "don't expend all the funds allocated" for these URM supplements. I don't know what to make of that but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if any PI with a qualified award, who asks for support of a qualified individual gets one. That would take the buddy/buddy part out of the equation for this particular type of administrative supplement.

It took awhile for me to become aware of the FOA version of the administrative supplement whereby Program was basically issuing a cut-rate RFA. The rich still get richer but at least there is a call for open competition. Not like the first variety I discussed whereby it seems like only some PIs, but not others, are even told by the PO that a supplement might be available. This seems slightly fairer to me although again, you have to be in the funded-PI club already to take advantage

There are sometimes competing versions of the FOA for a topic-based supplement issued as well. In one case I am familiar with, both types were issued simultaneously. I happen to know quite a bit about that particular scenario and it was interesting to see the competing variety actually were quite bad. I wished I'd gone in for the competing ones instead of the administrative variety****, let me tell you.

The primary advantage of the administrative supplement to Program, in my viewing, is that it is fast. No need to wait for the grant review cycle. These and the competing supplements are also cheap and can be efficient, because of leverage from the activities and capabilities under the already funded award.

As per usual, I have three main goals with this post. First, if you are an underrepresented minority trainee it is good to be aware of this. Not all PIs are and not all think about it. Not to mention they don't necessarily know if you qualify for one of these. I'd suggest bringing it up in conversations with a prospective lab you wish to join. Second, if you are a noob PI I encourage you to be aware of the supplement process and to take advantage of it as you might.

Finally, DearReader, I turn to you and your views on Administrative Supplements. Good? Bad? OUTRAGE?

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COI DISCLAIMER: I've benefited from administrative supplements under each of the three main categories I've outlined and I would certainly not turn up my nose at any additional ones in the future.

*I suppose it is not impossible that in some cases outside input is solicited.

**complained vociferously

***I have had a few enraging conversations long after the fact with POs who said things like "Why didn't you ask for help?" in the wake of some medium sized disaster with my research program. I keep to myself the fact that I did, and nobody was willing to go to bat for me until it was too late but...whatevs.

****I managed to get all the way to here without emphasizing that even for the administrative supplements you have to prepare an application. It might not be as extensive as your typical competing application but it is much more onerous than Progress Report. Research supplements look like research grants. Fellowship-like supplements look like fellowships complete with training plan.

20 responses so far

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