Being A Junior PI Is Not Like Being A Senior Post-Doc
June 20, 2008
Young Female Scientist has an interesting post up today in which she manifests a very common post-doc delusion:
And there is this other aspect that most PIs don’t want to admit: a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI. Admittedly, junior PIs don’t get to give talks as often as senior PIs, but they give talks more often than postdocs.
The point of this comparison is that in at least some (!) cases the senior postdoc proposed the project, did the project, and has lots of ideas for where her project will go next, since it is presumably the subject of her future grants and lab studies.
Being a junior PI requires that one deploy skills that are completely foreign from anything a senior post-doc is required to do.
A senior post-doc is responsible for a particular project, and possibly supervises one or two technicians or grad students. A junior PI is responsible for multiple projects, and supervises an entire lab full of people, perhaps as many as a dozen.
A senior post-doc needs to motivate herself–and maybe one or two other people–to be productive. A junior PI needs to motivate a entire lab full of people to be productive.
A senior post-doc is not responsible for securing funding to support her project. A junior PI must take a limited amount of start-up funds and leverage it into long-term external financial support for an entire laboratory.
A senior post-doc needs to plan her research project on the time scale of a couple of years, essentially looking towards the next paper or two as an endpoint. A junior PI must take a long-term view of a minimum of five years for each project in the laboratory, and must also take a big picture view of how the projects relate one to the other and fit together in an overall research program.
A senior post-doc needs to have an impressive enough CV to convince a hiring committee to give the post-doc a shot at runnning her own operation. A junior PI needs to convince an entire field that their research is integral to the advancement of that field and develop an international reputation as an outstanding scientist in order to earn tenure and get to keep her job.
Finally, a senior post-doc is responsible for writing up and presenting research that she performed with her own hands. A junior PI is responsible for writing up–in grants and manuscripts–and presenting research that was performed by the hands of the trainees in her laboratory. The latter, as I will explain below, is a very different skill, and requires many diffrerent kinds of management skills–one of which I discuss below–that post-docs are never required to exhibit.
Female Science Professor has a post up today in which she talks about being an author on abstracts or manuscripts that she has never seen. The main concerns she expresses are that this means she has not had an opportunity to improve the writing, nor has she had a chance to ensure that the scientific content is not bad/bizarre.
However, there is another aspect to this which is even more dangerous in the other direction: PIs presenting work or submitting manuscripts that have not been closely vetted by the trainees who performed the experiments.
This even more pernicious flip side to what she describes is PIs being given data collected by their trainees, and then writing and submitting manuscripts without even showing the manuscripts to the trainees who did the fucking experiments.
This is very, very, very bad.
At best, it is a “business practice” that is guaranteed to result eventually in manuscripts being submitted whose conclusions are flat out wrong. This is because the people who physically perform the experiments are in the best positions to know the strengths and limitations of the data. And, most importantly, they are the ones who have decided which data is “no good” and which data are “interpretable”. Without an intimacy with those decisions, one cannot sensibly discern whether the conclusions drawn from selected data are supportable.
At worst, this provides cover for misconduct: cherrypicking, massaging, etc.
Whenever any work product leaves my lab–abstracts, manuscripts, grant applications, seminar slides–it is always reviewed by whoever performed the experiments to be sure that the conclusions are supported by the data. And most of the time, the trainees who performed the experiments make figures and write up the work.
I always show shit to my trainees before presenting or submitting it and say: “Yo, can I say this shit? Is this shit right?” And I make it very clear that I embrace their criticism, and that I will never, ever, ever be angry if they tell me that my conclusions are wrong. But I will be very, very, very angry if they tacitly allow us to submit or present something that isn’t correct.
It is a specific management skill to effectively get people you supervise to be completely open and free with telling you things they think you might want not to hear. And post-docs do not have to exhibit this skill very much, if at all.
Plenty of very productive and outstanding senior post-docs–who spend the vast majority of their time at the bench or rig–do not have what it takes to actually run a laboratory, and success at being a post-doc does not in any linear way translate into success as a PI, which is built on a very different skillset. I know people who were superb post-docs who spent all their time by themselves in a dark room sitting at a physiology rig, and who published multiple first-author C/N/S papers, who have been abysmal junior PIs and whose labs are in danger of failing.
It is absolutely delusional to think that “a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI”. And adopting the attitude that this is the case is actually harmful to both senior post-docs and junior PIs.
It is harmful to the former, because this attitude gets in the way of them actually learning from their mentors what is different about being a PI. And it is harmful to the latter, because if you start your lab with the mindset and skillset of a senior post-doc, you are dramatically increasing the likelihood that you will not leverage your lab into a self-sustaining internationally known scientific entity.
Effective mentoring is a two-way street, and being effectively mentored requires admitting to oneself that there is something to learn from one’s mentors.