On independent scholarship

Jul 13 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

There was a comment on a prior post suggesting that when postdocs are funded by a RPG, this prevents them from engaging in independent scholarship.

True?

When I was a postdoc, regardless of source of my salary (variously grants, TG and individual fellowship), I was certainly constrained by the grants funding the lab. But I felt it was up to me to add value. To leverage my own interests to pursue extras and add-one that the lab head perhaps had not thought about as a strong interest. And whaddaya know, this direction turned into a funded R01. And eventually into publications.

I have always felt that my independent scholarship, such as it was, was at liberty to develop just so long as it was within the broad scope of contributing to the RPG.

Does true "independent scholarship" require something that does not contribute in any way to the goals of the grants funding the lab?

30 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    Constraints can help creativity, and any postdoc venturing too far out from what their lab already does is likely setting themselves up to fail. But I still don't like the idea of project-funded postdocs.

  • other MM says:

    "Does true "independent scholarship" require something that does not contribute in any way to the goals of the grants funding the lab?"

    Obviously not. While my experience has been very similar to yours, not all labs are run this way. When evaluating postdoc labs, one big tip off that I would likely just be a cog in the machine was that no postdocs had their own funds. It seemed to correlate with a very top-down, "you will do things my way or you will have no job" approach. There were definite exceptions, but in those cases the PI was very supportive of the idea of self funding and was glad that I came to the interview with a plan for what I wanted to do.

    As far as the "soft skills" one is supposed to be gaining as a postdoc, guidance in writing a successful grant on a project that uses the skills you bring to the lab to take some aspect of the main goal of the lab in a fun direction seems critical for future success as an independent researcher.

  • Anka says:

    In my current (large) lab, most postdocs are supported by the PI for the first 1-2 years and expected to be funded on their own sometime in year 2. Grad students are often funded on R01s all the way through - though this is partly because most of our grad students are international and ineligible for many NIH, NSF and foundation grants. Projects are all centered around the major "theme" of the lab, but postdocs are encouraged to pursue nearly any aspect of the theme that interests them and is amenable to being studied in the model organism we use.

  • Every trainee in my lab is expected to develop their own projects within the broad themes that we pursue, regardless of how they are funded.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    CPP's description above matches my own postdoc experience, as well as the way I manage my group now.

  • Microscientist says:

    Why is a post-doc limited to just one project? When I started my post-doc I was funded for 2 years to bring a specific skill set to the lab. I did that, and developed an independent project at the same time. That independent project both used my existing skills and I learned new ones that the lab was expert in but I was not. Even after I had my own funding I still contributed to the project that my PI had the funding for. I don't understand why it has to be all or nothing. Good scientists are always juggling multiple projects, a post-doc is the best place to develop that skill.

  • qaz says:

    What CPP said. In my lab, every project is a negotiation between me and the trainee (that goes for both postdocs and graduate students and even undergrads). Depending on the person's experience, expertise, and independence, that negotiation shifts from me suggesting a couple of potential projects (typical for UG and first-year GS) to the trainee suggesting a project that I need convincing is worth doing (typical for PD and late-stage GS).

  • Science Grunt says:

    I think it's more an issue of leverage. It can depend also in the personality of the PI. But, mainly, it's my experience that good postdocs are able to get their own project regardless of funding source or PI personality. The postdocs that tend to feel constrained are normally the ones that don't have the independence flame. Or someone like me, that started with good independence but, after some frustration from my PI, required a leash after not being able to produce useful data (but a lot of really cool ideas!).

    I think postdocs that are complaining about lack of independence should ask themselves if they deserve that independence. I did and it made me realize I shouldn't be a PI. Then I tried to figure out what a permadoc career would be like and I went "fuck this I'm out".

    FWIW, I don't think the existence of non-independent PhDs in the system is the problem. I think the problem is that the expectation in academia is that every PhD will become independent (up-or-out). I think the labor dynamics would be better served if researchers were able to stop at a pre-faculty level and be gainfully employed (ie, it's OK to have permadocs in the world, it's not OK to have permadocs earning less than 50k).

  • BugDoc says:

    @SG: "I think the problem is that the expectation in academia is that every PhD will become independent (up-or-out). I think the labor dynamics would be better served if researchers were able to stop at a pre-faculty level and be gainfully employed."

    Totally right! Expectations and infrastructure should support meaningful contributions at different levels, including junior and senior staff scientist, student, postdoc and research professor, etc. This is how the rest of the world works, i.e., you don't set expectations that the main purpose of training and work experience is for everyone to become the CEO in 5 years.

  • geranium says:

    One concern is when initiative on the part of the postdoc leads to new research that then leads to a funded grant with the supervisor as the PI. It sounds like this is what happened in DM's case.

    Such a scenario is an ideal one so long as the PI and PD sort out, in a fair way, what the PD can take with them if/when they start their own lab. But there's a certain logic (and perhaps legality) to using funding to define ownership of projects, so I think that original comment about the independence of PDs on RPGs is an important one.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "There was a comment on a prior post suggesting that when postdocs are funded by a RPG, this prevents them from engaging in independent scholarship."
    -This was mainly my reaction to many of the PIs on the thread about PD compensation saying, essentially, "It's *my* R01, you should do what you're told", or "PDs crazy ideas don't fund labs."

    I don't think PD's *have* to be supported independently to be creative, scientifically. I *do* think that it is one of the reasons we work so damn much. I have to render unto Caesar before I can try out my own ideas. Which, honestly, isn't the worst trade-off in the world, but it does relate to why PDs have to work so much and why PIs are often seen as overly controlling and harsh. It also creates conflicts when you leave the lab.

    Can the PIs sound off on three things? If the PDs are mostly free to do their own thing within the broad themes of the lab, then who's generating the preliminary data for the grants? If it's the PDs, how are you negotiating them taking the project with them when you have an R01 based on it?

    Finally, do you give more experimental latitude to a PD with a fellowship? Consider three scenarios: "earned" fellowship (K99, F award), "unearned" fellowship (Training grant), or paid off an RPG.

  • drugmonkey says:

    One concern is when initiative on the part of the postdoc leads to new research that then leads to a funded grant with the supervisor as the PI.

    Why is this a concern? My situation came out one way, and I was happy that I gained the benefit of my initiative. If it had come out in one of the handful of other possible ways, I would very likely also been satisfied that I gained benefit, mostly because my mentor at the time was very supportive of career no matter what the direction a postdoc took. So there would have been defined positive career credit accruing to me no matter the circumstances under which the work progressed. The only way I can see it having gone poorly for me is if I just never produced on the project.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Finally, do you give more experimental latitude to a PD with a fellowship?

    No.

    In theory, a K99 or F32 proposes a new plan, yes. But if it is good enough for a K99, there is no way in hell I'm going to tell a postdoc not to do it. A fundable fellowship plan is going to be a good research plan with upside for everyone, so what is not to like? Doesn't matter if it is a postdoc paid on my RPG or on a local TG. It all comes down to the mentoring relationship and whether it is in a good place or not.

    then who's generating the preliminary data for the grants?

    anybody who is in my lab could be doing this at times. including postdocs, and regardless of funding source.

    This is not rocket science. You work in the lab, you work (in part) for the lab. You train in the lab, the lab works (in part) for you.

    how are you negotiating them taking the project with them when you have an R01 based on it?

    Same way you negotiate any situation of "taking the project with them". The source of funding makes no difference here. The good mentoring relationship will be supporting the escape velocity launch of the departing postdoc. The crappy one will not. And nothing about who was funded by what mechanism will do jack squatte to change this. One might observe that if you feel like you need your own funding to force your PI to let you take "your" project to your faculty appointment that you are already in a bad, can't-win mentoring situation.

    "It's *my* R01, you should do what you're told",

    This is an interesting way to cast the idea that when you come in to a normal lab you don't just do absolutely whatever you want to. Sure, the ginormous, HHMI or bunkered NIH funded labs can extend this in some cases. Working to advance what the laboratory works on is not the same as "do(ing) what you're told".

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    As other have said, independent directions within the broader scope of the programs supported by whatever money pots.

    It is the postdoc's responsibility to ensure (via lab website, NIH reporter, during the phone interview, etc) that the PI's work reasonably overlaps with what they are interested in. After that, there usually is plenty of opportunity to not feel constrained unless one cannot come up with their own good ideas or the PI is the type (not very common in my experience) that has your experiments lined up for you even before they hire you!

  • PDs crazy ideas don't fund labs.

    It is *exactly* the "crazy ideas" of grad students and post-docs that fund my lab.

    If the PDs are mostly free to do their own thing within the broad themes of the lab, then who's generating the preliminary data for the grants?

    PDs and grad students.

    If it's the PDs, how are you negotiating them taking the project with them when you have an R01 based on it?

    When my post-docs get faculty positions, they are free to do whatever the fucke they want in their new labs, and I will support them. There is no negotiation, because they can take whatever they want.

    Finally, do you give more experimental latitude to a PD with a fellowship?

    No.

  • BugDoc says:

    @CPP: "they are free to do whatever the fucke they want in their new labs, and I will support them. There is no negotiation, because they can take whatever they want."

    Even if they are working on an area that is integral to one of your funded grants? What do you mean that you will support them? You don't work on anything they want to work on?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I just never understand why a PI would ever be worried that their protege is going to go off and work on stuff related to what the PI works on. The PI has a tremendous head start/resource advantage. If she or he gets beat on something, that is on her/him. And who the hell wouldn't just be proud and happy and bask in the glow of their academic offspring anyway?

  • BugDoc says:

    I worry about it because I want both the protege who started their own program and the PD working on related science currently in the lab to be successful. At this point in my career, I'm not too worried about getting scooped by a former postdoc, but a current postdoc or student might feel pretty screwed by that. That's my major concern with the exiting postdoc wanting to working on something central to the lab as opposed to something they've chosen to branch out on (which they are welcome to do). So far, just laying out some general boundaries and establishing mutual trust and support has worked fine for me, but having seen some spectacular flame-outs in other cases, I try to pay attention to this. And yes, we should all be very proud and happy of lab alumni accomplishments (even when not in academia).

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    "And who the hell wouldn't just be proud and happy and bask in the glow of their academic offspring anyway?"

    Right??? Nowadays, that emotion seems to conflict with worries about whether you will be able to get that next grant. Case in example: one of my mentors was borderline paranoid about this because apparently one of their previous postdocs who had now moved to a faculty position was competing with them in the same study sections for the same limited pools of money. When I joined the lab, PI had a discussion with me where they told me about this "background" and pretty much wanted a verbal commitment from me not to compete with them in the future, which I thought was bizarre and ridiculous. Luckily for me, the main focus of their work was not among my core interests so that wasn't going to happen anyway.

    I totally agree with your point that the PI has a tremendous advantage in terms of time, resources, network and reputation, but some still feel threatened. I never understood it and still don't.

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    "At this point in my career, I'm not too worried about getting scooped by a former postdoc, but a current postdoc or student might feel pretty screwed by that."

    Why the heck do you care about that?? That's between them, not you.

  • BugDoc says:

    "Why the heck do you care about that?? That's between them, not you."

    Why would I care if one of my current postdocs or students got scooped by a former postdoc? I don't know....mentorship? My point is that two PDs might be working in related project areas under the umbrella of a particular grant. If I'm funded to do it, my lab will still keep working in that general area, including new students or PDs. It doesn't really matter how you and your former PD divvy things up, even with the best of intentions, science goes in unexpected directions and can collide. This exact scenario happened to a close friend after they left their PD to start their own lab and it was a hot mess.

  • geranium says:

    > One concern is when initiative on the part of the postdoc leads to new research that then leads to a funded grant with the supervisor as the PI.

    >> Why is this a concern? My situation came out one way, and I was happy that I gained the benefit of my initiative. If it had come out in one of the handful of other possible ways, I would very likely also been satisfied that I gained benefit, mostly because my mentor at the time was very supportive of career no matter what the direction a postdoc took.

    Sure, if the supervisor is supportive, it is a non-issue. There are many ways that a PD's research can be funded, and many versions of how to successfully transition to an independent position. This has to be so, since research itself, not to mention funding, is unpredictable. I would even say that, under our current funding model, it's a best-case scenario when the PD generates new research avenues which lead to successful grants awarded to the supervisor.

    The point of my comment was that when it comes time to discuss projects the PD can "take with them," future experiments that are already funded in the supervisor's lab can affect what the postdoc is free to take.

    With all due respect, many PIs do not do what CPP does. When my post-docs get faculty positions, they are free to do whatever the fucke they want in their new labs, and I will support them. There is no negotiation, because they can take whatever they want.

    There is a ton of variability in whether and how supervisors support their PDs. I am pointing out that a model that typically funds PDs off of RPGs does nothing to systemically support PDs. And in the face of the alternatives we've been discussing (directing more funding to individual trainees), perhaps exacerbates their vulnerability.

  • drugmonkey says:

    But you could collide with all sorts of people. Sharing a mentoring tree makes that special?

  • drugmonkey says:

    geranium- I just don't see how it matter in an unhealthy mentoring dayad. H8ers gonna h8.

  • BugDoc says:

    Of course, sharing a mentoring tree makes that special. I'm invested in both former and current PD success. I don't care if my former (or current) PD scoops someone else.

  • geranium says:

    @DM I just never understand why a PI would ever be worried that their protege is going to go off and work on stuff related to what the PI works on. The PI has a tremendous head start/resource advantage. If she or he gets beat on something, that is on her/him. And who the hell wouldn't just be proud and happy and bask in the glow of their academic offspring anyway?

    Eh, my concern has nothing to do with competition or scooping. God forbid I ever try and compete with my former mentors or trainees. These are people I look to collaborate with, not scoop. But just like with other colleagues in the community, you gotta touch base so that you don't find yourself at odds, no? Certainly this is the case for many subdisciplines with overlapping/shared resources.

    @CPP When my post-docs get faculty positions, they are free to do whatever the fucke they want in their new labs, and I will support them. There is no negotiation, because they can take whatever they want.

    Really?? I am very interested in this. Does this mean that your lab is robust enough that you can afford to have exiting trainees take the entirety of their research with them? No snark, that sounds awesome. But you must have conversations with them about what they are planning? E.g. If they are not interested in following up some findings, perhaps you are? Or vice versa?

  • Ola says:

    As a PI, the "can I take it with me" talk with a departing PDF is an easy one. It consists mainly of me saying "sure, go ahead and compete. I will win. Good luck because however much you think I am your competitor, it's the big bad world out there full of other people who are a year ahead on the project and are gonna scoop both of us, that you should be worried about".

  • other MM says:

    Ola, do your PDs have earned independent fellowships? Are you saying you would deliberately put another grad student/PD on a project that a former PD with a K99/ROO or equivalent will start their new lab on, knowing that at least one of them will be scooped? Why? Do you warn incoming students and postdocs about this?

    Your field must be much more crowded than mine if you have multiple people in multiple labs doing the same thing...

    Or did I misunderstand the tone of your post?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    There is an infinity of future experiments to do given what we know today. The notion that two scientists should attempt to parse out what each is "allowed" to do going forward is pathetic.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you saying you would deliberately put another grad student/PD on a project that a former PD with a K99/ROO or equivalent will start their new lab on, knowing that at least one of them will be scooped?

    I think at the least that part of your conversation with the incoming trainee is that Yun Gun just left to start her new lab with a K99 working on Topic Y. This conversation then covers the pluses and minuses and a plan is made for going forward.

    I don't think one can make universal prescriptions for walling off avenues of inquiry.