“Postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions”
August 30, 2007
In a recent post, YoungFemaleScientist opines:
as a postdoc, you’re essentially a PI with most of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. You’re frequently on your own, but they get to claim they’re training you. You’re basically doing everything yourself, but they get to be senior author on your paper and put your work in their grants. Etc. etc.
See Thus Spake Zuska discussing an offhand PI quote in a LA Times 4-parter on a neuroscience lab in which it was suggested that grad students are “cannon fodder”. These comments are also supported by a recent Nature piece on trainees as indentured servants of their PIs. These types of comments (and indeed much more of the attitude to be found on YoungFemaleScientist blog) reflect the disgruntled post-doc and disgruntled grad student mindset on “exploitation”. This is a common theme, inevitably cited as a reason for all that is wrong with this “business”. There is some truth to the complaint, of course. But the PI is not always the bad guy and sometimes “exploitation” is actually the voice of experience trying to help the trainee’s career. We’ll start with the hit-em-hard:
“Post-docs *always* overestimate their intellectual contributions to the work they do relative to the PI. And they *always* underestimate the importance of what the PI contributes, intellectually and otherwise….I did this when I was a post-doc, and I’m sure you did, too. … Only once I became a PI did I become aware of this delusion.”
To which all I can say is, preach on Brother/Sister PP, preach on. I keep meaning to write about my grant writing “training” and this is a good excuse. In short, I “helped” my PI write two grants at the end of my second postdoc, about 5 years past defending. One project was about as straight down my alley as it could possibly be, very much a collaborative area and I thought I did a LOT of work on that grant. There were a lot of what I considered “my ideas” in that proposal. When I saw the submitted version after the PI had finished with it, I thought “Oh, gee, that’s what a grant is” and “Well that’s why s/he’s the PI”. Did I feel exploited? No, I did not. First, I was coming around to understand that I would be trying for a career in grant-funded science, that nothing was going to be handed to me and that I had better learn to write grants. This seemed a good opportunity for learning. Second, I was still planning to stay with the group for some indeterminate future. The relationship with the PI was good, I had a lot of intellectual freedom and responsibility and in my mind’s eye, I suppose I saw myself as doing the work if we should get funded. Third, I was coming to understand at a very minor level that this was part of the job. Whether I stayed or not, the lab needed to seek additional funding and it was part of my job as postdoc to contribute to that process.
Let me underline this point from my current perspective as PI. Disgruntled post-doc let us be clear that even though part of your job is “training”, part of your job is also…a job. That’s right, you owe professional performance to your laboratory. No, it doesn’t make a whit of difference that you funded your own fellowship. If you are using laboratory resources to your advantage (and if you are not you are already a PI) you owe a deal of work to someone else. That someone else is generally the PI of your group. And yes (gasp) some of what your “work” consists of is going to be intellectual property.
Back to history, a mere 6 mo after helping to write two grants, I found myself thrust into grant writing with some urgency. In submitting my own applications I discovered how little I had really contributed previously to the process of putting out a functional grant application. In spades. This gets back to PhysioProf’s point. It is inevitable that until we have walked the proverbial mile, we have little understanding of what others are doing. The NIH grant application is a complicated document, requires many additional local institutional processes and documents, communicates much with relatively little space for writing and is far from a simple recitation of “what we’d kinda like to do to address these sorta hypotheses for the next 5 years”. Writing a bunch of Background text, some draft Aims and an experiment or 6 is not the same as putting together a submittable application. I only really came to appreciate this when I was the one solely responsible for the outcome.
Another current perspective is that it is amazing how ignorant post-docs are of even the paper writing / submitting / revising process. Maybe I’ve just been around a lot of loser post-docs. But this experience is not just from my lab(s) and seems to cross disciplines. First and foremost, graduate students and postdocs spend incalculable amounts of time reading papers. Right? So why is it so difficult to understand what makes an actual “paper”? You need to know something about length, format and expected content of the average paper in the journal(s) you target. Not every piece of data you collect is actually interesting, no I don’t care how hard you worked at it! The “introduction” and “discussion” parts are not a dissertation. The paper needs to tell a “story” even if it is not chronologically accurate. When it is back from review with favorable comments, now is NOT the time to throw in a bunch of stuff the reviewers didn’t even mention! And here’s a hint, when that “almost finished draft” you give to the PI disappears onto his desk for months it isn’t because s/he’s lazy or is dissing “your project”. It might be because the PI finds your effort so dismal and envisions so much of his/her work required that it is frankly depressing and s/he moves on to something more rewarding in the unending stack of PI duties…
Now, dear post-doc here’s the thing. You are in training and the PI is committed to training you. No big deal if you don’t know everything, if you need help to see what makes a paper or a research analysis or a publishable figure. The trick is, to understand that this is what is going on. The PI is not making you create new figures on a whim as make-work. S/he is not trash-canning your extra 4 pages of discourse to depress you. Saying “that doesn’t need to go in there” is not a disrespect for your labors. Editing your writing is not “just substituting the PIs style for mine”. These are the years of expertise in the field talking to explain to you how to avoid common peer reviewer complaints and summary rejections of your meritorious work. Try to understand that in many cases the criticism is warranted. Also, try to understand that the goal is sometimes to get the paper accepted for publication in a given journal. Also try to understand that the PI expects you to learn from this process! The next time try to do it their way.
T. Ryan Gregory at Genomicron has a great essay on why your PI is urging you to publish your results. It addresses several common complaints about post-doc / PI relations. The absolute icing on the cake is the final point:
8: If data are not published, they might as well not exist as far as the pool of human knowledge is concerned.
Data that would otherwise be considered interesting, novel, and important mean nothing if no one knows about them. And if they are never published, then effectively they might as well not exist.
Or as I would put it, “I don’t care how much ‘work’ you put in, if it isn’t published then it didn’t happen. If you don’t publish you are not doing science.” This comes up all over the place and is specifically relevant to academic credit for ideas, meaning authorship position and future “ownership” for particular findings.
In additional related reading…
Larry Moran of Sandwalk blogs on the purpose of graduate education, in response to another Nature piece on the “overproduction” of PhDs. To me his defense sounds like the kind of thing I talk about (no blogo yet though) with respect to bachelor’s level college education. Namely that it is most emphatically not direct vocational training, that the learning-to-learn is key, pursuing your own intellectual interests develops a contributing citizen, etc. In short I’m a believer in the Liberal Arts college tradition. I don’t know that I agree that this applies to graduate education in which the vocational expectations are more explicit . Not that the only path is to become a NIH-supported research professor but rather that for most people the goal should be to be training for a career directly related to the subject of study and research.
UPDATE: YFS’s readers are going nuts and “Am I a woman scientist” points out that some with opinions may be wary of non-anon commenting. So I’ll turn off the ID requirements for awhile, comment away.