Archive for the 'Postgraduate Training' category


Jul 24 2015 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

Often times in academics we are anticipating a job change in the near future. Postdocs, in particular, since this is supposed to be a temporary job. But faculty occasionally anticipate a job change too. On the market b/c you fear tenure won't fall, to leverage progress into a better job, to jump out of the rat race, to join Administration. 

I give advice based on Yoda's wisdom. 

Yoda: Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless. 

No, not the paternalistic grouch stuff. In this he is worse than a greybeard of science. 

No it is the part about doing a good job on what you are currently doing. To me this is the basis for making the future stuff more likely to go your way.  

No matter how removed the anticipated job category, the candidate who has been successful in her previous job is going to look better. 

I entertained the McKinsey thing at one point during my training. Looked into it, saw who they hired and spoke to a friend of a sibling who went that way. They did not want people who had a disappointing career in science up to that point. They knew what CN or S publications meant. They wanted excellence.

Now of course plenty of people get alternative career jobs after a disappointing career as grad student or postdoc. But I think the take away message is that you should maximize your success in whatever job you are doing now. Don't just slack because you plan to be out-o-here in a year. 

Success now increases the chances of getting into whatever next job lies over the horizon. 

There is also the consideration that you may find yourself staying in the job you have much longer than anticipated or desired. A year from now, you don't want to look back and wish you had finished that experiment, paper, grant application or whatever.

Work based on the idea you may still be in this job in a year or three. Sometimes things happen. Maybe the local institution finally steps up and does you a solid. Maybe that firm job offer elsewhere is denied by the Dean or P&T committee. Maybe the University System puts down a hiring freeze.

You'll be better off if you are taking care of business in your existing job.

63 responses so far

Mentoring and parenting

Like it or not, your mentoring behavior is intimately tied to the experiences you had as a scientific trainee. Let me rephrase that for emphasis. Tied to the way you experienced your training.

In the very general sense, if you thought something was good for you, you are going to tend to try to extend that to your trainees. And if something was bad for you, you are going to try to avoid that for your trainees.

Obviously, the ability that you have to emulate or avoid certain behaviors of your mentors-of-reference* is not going to be perfect. But let us assume for argument's sake that you can make a fair stab at mentoring the way that you would intend yourself to mentor.

This is not all that dissimilar to parenting, I find. There are obvious ways in which I think my parents did an absolutely bang up job of raising me. They set me on a path of life that is in many ways ideal. A career that is fulfilling, a political and social stance that I am proud of, a strength of will and freedom from many of the family-drama related pathologies that plague many adults. I would hope to provide this type of parenting to my own children. Absolutely.
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20 responses so far

The NIH removes requirement for standardized scores in pre-doc fellowship applications

Jul 10 2015 Published by under Postgraduate Training



To align with recent changes in the fellowship biosketch format,this Notice eliminates the requirement for inclusion of scores from standardized exams (e.g., MCAT, GRE) in the fellowship biosketch from the following funding opportunity announcements, effective immediately:

For reference, from PA-14-147:

Note that scores for standardized exams (e.g., MCAT, GRE) as well as a listing of the applicant’s courses and grades must be included in the Fellowship Applicant Biographical Sketch, and NOT in this attachment.

Anybody seen a rationale for this one?

The overall thrust of the Investigator Biosketch revamp seems to be to brag even more highly upon personal accomplishments, rather than suitability for the specific proposal. Also to allow people with non-traditional (non-published, say) accomplishments to brag on those.

Doesn't it seem like eliminating standardized scores works against this?

Can anyone think of why this would be a good thing for NIH to do?

Next point: I see where it says it is eliminating the requirement, not telling applicants not to include their scores. Fascinating.

First: If you have excellent standardized scores, I suggest you continue to put those in the pre-doc NRSA biosketch somewhere people.

Second: If you don't put them in there, the reviewer who is fond of such measures of your aptitude is going to assume your scores are really bad. Right?

Third: I think this is more evidence of NIH changes that will throw chaos into the system rather than really improving much.

10 responses so far

Poll: graduate student applicant standards

Feb 20 2015 Published by under Postgraduate Training

What are your program's standards for GRE percentiles and GPA?

That is, what would be the minimum score that would be essentially unremarkable, and require no other compensating attributes, to justify an invitation to interview?

48 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

On Paying Postdocs Whatever for Whatevs

Sep 19 2014 Published by under NIH, Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

There was a discussion on Twitter regarding postdoctoral compensation that veered off into the assertion that it is "easy" for PIs to give a 20% bump to their postdocs if they wanted to. It eventually incorporated some allegation that particular subspecialties (like computer/informatics jockeys) required a bonus bit of pay above normal for postdocs. Eventually it became clear to me that there are both some postdocs and indeed junior faculty that basically think they are able to just pay their postdocs whatever they want if they happen to have sufficient grant or other money to do so.

In one case I tried gently to raise the spectre of unequal treatment, bias and discrimination in wage compensation. I do this not just because of the general observation that in far too many workplaces women just happen to get paid less. I do this also because I have been around training environments where the direct-experience pain of unequal postdoc pay ("because DewdDoc has a family to support and you, WomanDawk do not") was made clear to me. While I have not heard of anybody pulling that crap in my current department...let's just say I'm not the trusting type.

I have tried to adhere to postdoctoral compensation policies that were external to my own (inevitably biased) self in my actions as a lab head. In brief, I have stuck to the NRSA guidelines. At one point that meant that my postdocs were being paid better than the mean in my department. I think we are now all doing better but my sense is that my institution only requires the starting pay to be at NRSA minimum and doesn't enforce the yearly steps.

I tried the subtle way but it is not, apparently, working.

PhysioProf, growing tired of the shenanigans got shouty.


Head on over to the NIH Grants Policy Statement where it talks about Salaries. Emphasis added for the slower readers.

Allowable. Compensation for personal services covers all amounts, including fringe benefits, paid currently or accrued by the organization for employee services rendered to the grant-supported project. Compensation costs are allowable to the extent that they are reasonable, conform to the established policy of the organization consistently applied regardless of the source of funds, and reasonably reflect the percentage of time actually devoted to the NIH-funded project.

and on "bonuses", a mechanism used to supplement postdocs that I have heard of.

Allowable as part of a total compensation package, provided such payments are reasonable and are made according to a formally established policy of the grantee that is consistently applied regardless of the source of funds.

The grants policy has this to say about Fraud and Waste:

Examples of fraud, waste, and abuse that should be reported include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, misuse, or misappropriation of grant funds or property, and false statements, whether by organizations or individuals. Other examples include theft of grant funds for personal use; using funds for non-grant-related purposes; theft of federally owned property or property acquired or leased under a grant; charging the Federal government for the services of “ghost” individuals; charging inflated building rental fees for a building owned by the grantee; submitting false financial reports; and submitting false financial data in bids submitted to the grantee (for eventual payment under the grant).

The Federal government may pursue administrative, civil, or criminal action under a variety of statutes relating to fraud and making false statement or claims.

It doesn't precisely say that overpaying staff outside of what is "reasonable" and that "conform to the established policy of the organization" is the same as "theft for personal use" and they talk about "inflated...fees" only in the context of building rental. But c'mon.

It doesn't take a neurobrainrocketscientistsurgeon to deduce that an individual NIH-grant-holding PI has some obligation to pay their staff only what is consistent with institutional policies external to their own personal preferences.

I take no position whatever on what institutional postdoc compensation policies should be in various locations in this fair land. Ok, that's a lie, I think NRSA scale should be a minimum. But if there need to be local adjustments, no problem. If there needs to be institutional recognition that some job types (like a informatics / computational biology postdoc) require a consistent bonus to compete with the local killer-app startup, fine.

But it is VERY clear to me that individual PIs do not just get to willy-nilly decide what to pay their trainees without any reference to what is "reasonable" and what has been made "established policy of the organization".

65 responses so far

Tough love

I got tough-love comments only about twice in my postgraduate academic training prior to becoming a PI.

Once was from a friend in a far different graduate program when I was in the depths of writing my dissertation. This one is in my top 5 life touch-stone conversations I would guess. Basically it boiled down to "If you find all of this so unpleasant, get the hell off your ass and do something else. I mean seriously, wtf is wrong with you?"

The second tough-love convo came from a mentor who had just seriously pulled the rug out from under me and I had disappeared (essentially) from work for several weeks. That one was more----nuanced in effect on me. But in the end s/he was right. Shitty things happen but dude, it's your fricken career and your fricken life. So sack up and get back to work.

On reflection, I didn't have anywhere near enough people doing this to me throughout my career. Two was not by any means as many as I could have benefitted from.

As a mentor, I rarely start these conversations. I doubt I've had a trainee that doesn't get at least one such conversation from me that could qualify, but I find them unpleasant and avoid them.

No doubt just as my mentors did.

They are hard conversations to initiate and hard ones to receive.

Even on the Internet from some anonymous blowhard.

17 responses so far

NPRonNIH continues: The Postdoc

More from Richard Harris at NPR:

Too Few University Jobs For America's Young Scientists

That's because if you want a career in academia, it's almost essential as a postdoc to make a splashy discovery and get the findings published in a top scientific journal. Hubbard-Lucey is working on an experiment that she hopes will be her ticket to a professorship — or at least to an interview for an academic job.

Whether she succeeds or not, she's part of a shadow workforce made up of highly qualified scientists who work long hours for comparatively little pay, considering their level of education: about $40,000 a year.

Potnia Theron wishes to discuss this last assertion: NPR story on Postdocs: what is your salary? edition.

And, I am glad she found a position in NYC. I am sure she loves The City. But $47K is a lot more than median salary in the United Sates right now. Maybe its not enough to live in NYC, but it is elsewhere.

I have an older post for your consideration of what trainee salaries look like compared to when I was a wee trainee. My conclusion that scientific trainees enjoy a 30% or more bonus in inflation-constant dollars over my day was not of any comfort to the Millennial types, apparently. So good luck with your point, Potnia.

Anyway, you'll be happy to know the subject of the NPR piece came out okay in the end:

That first conversation took place in May. Later in the summer, while Hubbard-Lucey was still working on her scientific paper, she heard about a job where she could make good use of her Ph.D. She wouldn't be running a lab or working in academia. But she would be advancing cancer research at a nonprofit institute. She got the job. And now, she says, she's happy with the new path she's chosen.

Way to blow the lede, Richard Harris. Way to blow the lede.

176 responses so far

A simple question (or two) on training graduate students

Sep 13 2014 Published by under Postgraduate Training, Tribe of Science

This one is directed at my Readers who have supervised graduate students through the PhD in their laboratory.

Have you ever, at any point, thought that you should not train more than replacement value (n=1)?

If not, why not? What influences in your life have shaped your decision to train graduate students? What is YOUR purpose here?

69 responses so far

Exposure IS training

Aug 29 2014 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

from a Twitt:

Let me explain something to you trainees. You are not undergraduate students anymore. You are not given a syllabus, quizzes and office-hour responses to "Is this going to be on the test" or "What do I need to know".

When your PI gives you a draft of a grant or a manuscript for you to read and provide feedback, this is not ONLY about asking for your help. This is about training you in how this person accomplishes these tasks, what manuscripts look like in nascent form, how a grant should be structured and how you incrementally improve an academic work.

The PI can lead you to water but it is not her job to force you to drink. It is YOUR JOB to drink the water.

Exposure is training.

Another one of the twitts identified a problem I had in writing papers as a postdoc. It boils down to the fear of showing your PI something that is less than perfect lest she think that you are a fool, incompetent and nowhere near the scientist-prospect that you hoped was her impression of you. I used to delay and delay showing anything to my PI until it was looking really good.

Let me tell you a little something. PIs do not lose respect for trainees for sending them crappy drafts. At the worst, they shake their heads ruefully over the shitty training you received in your last stop. Mostly, they just saddle up to train you how to write a paper their way.

They lose respect over other things. A lack of any sign of a manuscript. You can say you are "working on it" but the PI has no concrete way to distinguish the fact you are in Draft XXVII of a master work from the scofflaw who hasn't done much more than write a title page into a Word doc. So show them something.

Another thing that PIs lose respect for trainees over is a failure to make changes in response to what the PI has said or shown them. This is key. You are being trained. If a PI tells you to do something, bloody well DO IT. Don't spend weeks bitching to your spouse, fellow trainees and the Internet about what a taskmaster the your PI is. Just write, edit, change, fix. DO IT.

There are ways to really get on the PI's good side. For example when the draft is on the PI's desk for editing/review? There is no reason you can't also be working on it. And updating your PI on your new drafts.

Write more. I think Comradde PhysioProffe had a blog post or extensive comment on this some time ago in a prior discussion of the topic. Trainees are often blocked from writing because they are thinking to themselves how to be as lazy efficient as possible. "I'm not sure what she wants here so I need clarification before I write a whole bunch of stuff". Or "Last time I wrote four pages and she didn't use any of it in the manuscript!". PP's point was that sometimes you have to write something out to see for yourselves that it is the wrong direction to go in. It is not wasted effort, it is part of the process. The science communicator types preach on about being willing to "kill your babies". I believe this is similar. Do note, however, that often enough some major passage that you decide to leave out of the present manuscript comes back as useful material for the next manuscript (or grant or review article). So writing is rarely a total waste in this business.

44 responses so far

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