Thought of the Day

Mar 28 2014 Published by under Careerism, Day in the life of DrugMonkey

One of the obvious desires and needs of the newly minted Assistant Professor is to rapidly establish his or her independent laboratory focus. To show the world, in both formal and informal ways, that all that brilliant work has indeed been driven forward by this new Principal Investigator.

As part of this it is necessary to take full credit for the work that has been done primarily by this young person's laboratory. It can be acceptable in some situations to take a bit of extra credit by inference when the work has been of a collaborative nature, particularly when only that Assistant Professor is under review.

It is dangerous, however, to fail to modulate these claims of credit for collaborative work when all of the participants in the collaboration are under simultaneous review. On the tactical level, you do not want your reviewers thinking that two, three or more labs are taking credit for the exact same thing. On a strategic level, you ARE going to piss off your collaborators. And this is the sort of thing that induces collaborators to stop collaborating with you and just to do it themselves.

When you are the more-junior partner in this scenario, the odds predict that the more-senior person is going to have more relative ability (funds and personnel) to cut you off and continue by other means.

As a related issue, one of the skillsets you need to develop as a scientist is a decent Spidey-sense for collaborators. Some are going to be selfish and some are going to bend over backward to let you take credit, to help your career along and to promote you. These latter are ESSENTIAL to your success. The former must often be tolerated and you do well to protect yourself from them. However, if you cannot discern the two different types relatively rapidly and act accordingly, you run the risk of really pissing off people* who would otherwise be your champion.

Don't do this.

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*Remember that unless the person has "Emeritus" after their title, bending over backward to allow you to take credit is not necessarily immaterial to them. This is a reality. No matter how seemingly established a more-senior colleague is, they are worried about the future. There is always the next grant review. Doing a colleague a solid costs them something. The fact that they think this is the right thing to do, regardless, doesn't mean that they do not do so with a conscious nod to the costs involved.

15 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Dang it DM, has some junior wannabe scientist forgotten to emphasize how important your choice of font was in getting that collaborative manuscript accepted? You just can't trust kids today. Honorific authorships used to be THE way that the minions recognized greatness of their neighbouring labs for allowing them access to their spectrometer after 2 am and on Sundays. Now, they expect you to read their POS manuscript! Not only that, it now takes 10 of their manuscripts to nudge up your h-index by one. It is Just. Not. On.

  • Dude, your second and third paragraphs are completely incomprehensible gibbersh. Rewrite.

  • BioDataSci says:

    Any hard and fast rules on whether you should or shouldn't collaborate with your postdoc PI as a new assistant prof?

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you don't then you can't be busted on for dependence on that person. So generally the advice is not to continue past wrapping up the last projects started in that lab.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Tenure workshop just mentioned where multiple collabs claimed total grant dollars of a collab grant to each of their programs when going for tenure at same place. Obviously that did not fly.

  • Jo says:

    > The fact that they think this is the right thing to do, regardless, doesn't mean that they do not do so with a conscious nod to the costs involved.

    On the other hand, its a foolish senior scientist who doesn't recognize that this year's Assistant Prof may be next year's study section member!

  • rxnm says:

    "Any hard and fast rules on whether you should or shouldn't collaborate with your postdoc PI as a new assistant prof?"

    I was told don't, until you have independent funding/pub track record. But then, really, I probably wouldn't.

    I am about to enter into this situation... I don't know what kind of PI the senior person is, we've met once. It is hard to know how much to push for clarity in advance without sounding like I'm going to be a PITA to work with.

  • neuropop says:

    @BioDataSci - "Any hard and fast rules on whether you should or shouldn't collaborate with your postdoc PI as a new assistant prof?"

    Don't. Maybe finishing up postdoc projects is fine. Even better if you can finagle a corresponding author listing. But then you have to strike out on your own. I learned the hard way.

  • eekt says:

    neuropop is right. It's difficult when the postdoc PI inserts self into every little thing though to show productivity for mid to late career advancement. Or when postdoc PI presents your work as coming from "his" lab when you're the PI on the grants that funded the work. It's like trying to get a divorce when the partner doesn't want one.

  • jojo says:

    "Don't. Maybe finishing up postdoc projects is fine. Even better if you can finagle a corresponding author listing. But then you have to strike out on your own. I learned the hard way."

    By "Don't collaborate" do you only mean don't have them on your papers, or do you also mean don't even share resources/acknowledge them/work with them?

    How about cases where the postdoc PI is retiring and you're taking over their system at your new job?

  • neuropop says:

    @jojo -- sharing resources and acknowledging them is fine, if they are similarly magnanimous. Do not publish with them (except for the caveat above). The rest is your call. As long as your contributions are acknowledged as your own and not simply branching off from the PIs agenda.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    jojo- it can certainly work a lot better that way than it does when the last PI is still active. But as I always caution, none of this traditional career advice should be taken as a universal. Sometimes there are such big advantages to continuing to collaborate that it is worth the risk. Sometimes entire subfields expect more collaboration with the prior mentors. Etc.

  • neuropop says:

    @dm -- where is the mythical unicorn subfield that expects more collaboration with prior mentors? I wish I knew of it. My tenure case went down in flames precisely because of my collaboration with my postdoc PI. We worked great as a team, with significant papers and our contributions were very clear. But no dice -- "not clear whether independence has been established" was the verdict. R01's be damned.

  • Joe says:

    The system is decidedly non-optimal. When I was an asst prof, I didn't go for certain collaborations because I needed those people to be letter-writers for my tenure package, and such letters have to be at arm's length (meaning no collaborators). Similarly, I did not collaborate with my post-doc advisor, because any publications from that would have been considered a negative (suggesting lack of independence). I collaborate with him now (as an assoc prof), but I missed some opportunities and lost some time because I had to play the game. Starting your own lab and research program is hard enough on its own, having to cut yourself off from others that could best help you scientifically just makes it harder.

  • jojo says:

    Thanks for the replies. My grad adviser had several pubs with his postdoc adviser and still got tenure without apparent issue. My own work was following up on the work he did as a postdoc, and one of my papers includes postdoc PI as a co-author because they did an experiment we ended up including as supporting data. They had the materials needed to do the experiment and it would have been difficult to send them to us, so it was logical just to ask them to do it and put them on the pub.

    However, my adviser was broadly collaborative (he wrote with lots of people, not just his former PI) and as a result had tons of pubs, so maybe that helped??? Anyway I don't know. Maybe it's one of these things like moving where some people assume the worst and some people just don't care as long as good science results.

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