I often remark that the online science community is populated exclusively by two types:
- Hard working brilliant trainees doing the work of a PI in all but name (often held down by their evil, lazy, unresponsive PIs).
- PIs who are selflessly dedicated mentors who do nothing other than support their trainees in the perfect individual way that will lead to success.
The trainee complaints about their situation, mentoring, supervision, responsibilities, etc are relatively openly discussed.
What is not so commonly discussed, at least in the open, are the frustrations that Professors, particularly the newer ones, have with their trainees. I have heard these in person from peer faculty and those who see me as a more-senior sounding board. I have heard this in the back channel discussions that come along with blogs, forums and twitter.
One of the more common areas of PI and trainee frustration broke cover on the twitters recently. It has to do with who takes the lead, shoulders the major load, has the responsibility for creating manuscripts and seeing them through to publication.
I’m not going to call anyone out by linking to it but I thought the individuals perfectly expressed the spectrum as I have seen it over my many years in this business of academic science.
One person asserted that in all labs of their experience, the papers only got published because trainees wrote and shepherded the manuscripts through to publication.
Other people asserted that they, as PI, take the major role in essentially everything past data generation. Drafting manuscripts, analyzing data, creating figures, dealing with submissions and responses to review.
My conversations with frustrated PIs indicate that they generally are experiencing the latter type of reality, but expect more of the former. And they can’t understand why their trainees are not driving the ship more on their respective projects.
These frustrations tend to fork in two directions.
The people that are in conversations with me are almost always seeking advice about their mentoring. They are thinking that somehow they are doing it wrong and that there must be some insight I can give* about how to get their trainees to do more on the manuscript front. This type tends to mostly blame themselves. They also act like they think this is shameful…something not to be admitted to their peer PIs.
On the other fork, we hear a lot of toxic PI behavior being described that seems to me to have a root in this frustration. Yelling, shaming, abusing, demanding PIs seem to think that this is a way to get trainees to push deeper into the publishing process. Sure, maybe they are just jerks. But maybe they are, in part, dealing in a very bad way with this very common frustration.
I often point out to the distressed PIs as gently as I can that the reason they are in their chair is that they were better than most other postdocs. More energetic, more responsible, smarter. With the odds of landing a professor job what they are, it is just plain denialist to suggest post-doc qualities have nothing to do with the success. Not everything, sure, but a very big role. “You, young Assistant Professor, must be assumed to have been much better than most other postdocs”, I say.
I observe that this means by pure chance alone, it is unlikely that all of their post-docs (or grad students) are as good.
Then we get to the statistics of postdocs who trained in very well funded, famous, fancy, highly productive laboratories from very large and research active Universities having a leg up for all jobs, i.e., all across the University and Department spectra. And the hesitation that the hardest charging gunner trainees might have about joining a newer lab, a less-well-established newer PI or a less research active University or Department.
This means that there is a good chance, on average, that most Professors are not going to attract the level of postdoc or grad student that was the norm in their own training arc. In particular they are not likely to attact the quality that was around them in their later stages of training just before they were successful at landing a Professor appointment.
Expecting all of your trainees to be as good as you remember (i.e., true or not) you were is not rational.
*So, you may be wondering at this point, how do I respond to those who feel their mentoring is deficient and want some advice on how to get their trainees to write more, work deeper into the publication process and generally shoulder more of the load?
I have no answers. I am definitely in the second category of PI. I take the major role on the vast majority of the papers that have me on them in last position as senior author, or as first author. I wonder constantly if it is something about my deficiencies as a mentor that have led to this relative balance. If a postdoc with me shoulders the majority of the load on 1 or 2 papers of “their” projects, I think of this as a pretty decent outcome…for my lab.
And I’ve been at this long enough that my frustrations with this are damped, muted, even shoved into the background. I have inhabited a job category which demands, to my interpretation, a steady output of the data that we have generated into the peer reviewed scientific literature. The wheel grinds on inexorably. It is my belief that while productivity never guarantees future grant success, a lack of steady publication would be a serious handicap to continuing my operation.
The buck stops with me. And if I want to ensure papers are published on a somewhat regular and frequent basis, it is my job to make sure that happens. One way or another.
I try as hard as I know to lead the horses to water. To show my postdocs how I think about turning scientific questions we might have into published papers. To show them how I work. I have had, for decades, projects at various stages that a postdoc could pick up and take the lead on, at any time they are with me. I encourage them, as best I am able, to also riff off our ongoing (i.e. funded) projects so long as it is leading to something useful.
What I don’t do is yell, scream, demand, belittle or explode. There simply comes a point where I have to get in there and get the project published. Perhaps nobody has taken up the reins on it. Perhaps someone keeps meaning to but doesn’t ever really advance the ball. Perhaps the postdoc has left and has good intentions to finish it up…but doesn’t. Or perhaps they’ve left and have no intention of contributing any further (fair play, btw).
No matter the reason, the buck stops with me.
I feel that it is my ultimate responsibility to make sure those papers get published. And I feel that there will be real and significant consequences for my continued future in this career if I do not publish papers.