Should we bother trainees with the facts of life?

July 3, 2007

My comments on grantsmanship and scientific careerism are directed as much at the postdoc as at the recently-appointed independent investigator. As I’ve been discussing in comments some of this is motivated by the feeling that my scientific training was somewhat lacking in the “facts of life” of a science career. Not to say some of this wasn’t my own fault for being oblivious. But when I did get the chance at an independent position I felt a little behind the game when it came to spooling up grant proposals and making my way in the field at large as a “real” scientist. I’m a quick study and I found with the appropriate motivation (“oh shiest, it’s all on me now!”) I’m an even quicker study. Nevertheless, because of this experience I tend to adopt a style with my trainees similar to that described in a comment from Physioprof :

Also, I think there is a well-intentioned, but misplaced, notion that trainees should be “protected” from having to think about things like funding and scientific politics. This sounds nice, but all it really does is constitute a lie of omission concerning what the trainees’ futures hold in store.

I have regular discussions with my trainees about grantsmanship, the politics of publishing peer reviewed articles, and much of the other “sausage-making”.

A rotation-type trainee swung by my office at one point and asked in dismay “Is this really the job? Sitting in front of the computer all day long writing grants? I don’t think I want to continue with science if this is it.” I’ll have to get to the real answer to this question in a later post, but for the moment, this illustrates one of the problems with putting too much of the “sausage-making” (as PhysioProf has it) in front of the early-stage trainee. It is just too damn discouraging. But then again, as I’ve discussed before and should probably expand on, there are choices that can be made all throughout training that can assist with career progression. Thinking about what typical critiques one is likely to receive in grant submission helps to plan ahead.

Readers (all three of you!) what do you think? What balance of concern with grant writing, grant tactics, schmoozing and other careerist issues should be struck against the actual science?

Update: Open Reading Frame and Dr. Shellie chime in on a related topic, namely is it ethical to encourage grad students when the career prospects are grim.

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4 Responses to “Should we bother trainees with the facts of life?”

  1. whimple Says:

    Grant writing, grant tactics, schmoozing and other career issues IS the actual science, just as much as doing the experiments. My philosophy is to let it all hang out, warts and all. When my grants get triaged, my students get to read the pink sheets (and we’re talking some hostile pink sheets). I think it’s educational, although others might disagree. If this stuff doesn’t appeal to the trainees it’s in their best interests to find out now, rather than 5 years into their post-doc. Still, it “breaks the fourth wall” between PIs and students, which some are reluctant to do.

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  2. Thomas Robey Says:

    My advisor has also exposed my graduate student colleagues and me to the grant writing process, asking us to contribute ideas, data and text to his submissions. This is part of his mentoring, and generally, we do not feel exploited. The difference in mentoring between grad students and post-docs is basically who is in the drivers’ seat. (He is with us, and the post-docs are for ‘their’ grants.)

    You are probably familiar with Bruno Latour’s social constructivist theories of science. His take (in his early writing: Lab Life was an anthropological study of a lab at the Salk Institute) is a useful perspective for young scientists and non-scientists alike to think about what science is as a profession. The philosophical conclusions he makes are more of a stretch for me.

    Like whimple said, “If [grantsmanship] doesn’t appeal to the trainees it’s in their best interests to find out now, rather than 5 years into their post-doc.” As for me, I am leaning toward the, “I don’t think I want to continue with science if this is it” position, because as much as I like hatching ideas and other intellectual activities, to maintain my sanity, I need considerable time to work with my hands and see effects.

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  3. drugmonkey Says:

    Dangit Thomas. Now I really need to work on the “real answer” to the questions posed by a trainee I mention above. It is also my answer to your leaning.

    The short version is this. It is (most likely) a long, long way between now and PI-dom for you. Do not assume that you are going to be the same person then that you are now. Do not assume that your motivations in science are static. Finally, it is the lower probability that you will end up as a clone of your current PI- the way s/he does it is not the only way to have a career as an independent scientist.

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  4. bdf Says:

    I’m all for putting it all out there. Sugarcoating things only prolongs the inevitable, which is the harsh realization that being an exciting, renegade scientist 100% of the time isn’t what most graduate students are going to become. So, thanks for bringing this up. I’m with you. Personally, my PI is pretty open about all aspects of his projects, much like Thomas’ situation I imagine, which has been a great learning experience for getting to know about the “behind the scenes” sort of stuff early in one’s career.

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