Namnezia has initiated an interesting conversation on the criteria for awarding a PhD in the sciences. A commenter over there alleged a set of rules that is nearly impossible for me to believe is true. RX claims:

No official requirements for my PhD program, it’s up to the PI.
My lab is crazy. Here’s the requirement: total first author impact factor: 30, total pages of paper: 20. The first graduate of my lab got 1 Neuron and 1 Nature Neuroscience paper. All the rest graduates tend to follow this pattern.

This is one reason it shouldn’t be left up to the PI, there is a reason doctoral committees and doctoral program rules exist.

Go Play at the Take it to the Bridge blog.

Thought of the Day

August 29, 2013

What “best predicts” the success of a junior scientist is handing her a laboratory and R01 level funding.

The notion that past publication record predicts anything independently from these two factors is arrant nonsense.

I think I’ve done a post on this before but it arose again on the Twitts today.

As a lab head, I give all the trainees access to our funded grant proposals..and often the applications I am working on. I would certainly give them to someone in my lab upon request if I had forgotten to email something to them (or not bothered in the case of our current firehose of applications).

I am at a considerable loss to imagine why any lab head would have a problem doing this.

https://twitter.com/biochembelle/status/352093465674387456

https://twitter.com/drugmonkeyblog/status/352120973702598657

https://twitter.com/biochembelle/status/352123786344144897

Does anyone have any new insight on why a PI would not make the funded grant proposals available? Doesn’t everyone in the lab need to have at least some understanding of what is supposed to be accomplished?

Now, benign neglect, I can sort of understand. Not all the PIs out there understand how important it is to get the trainees thinking about the grant cycle as early as possible. Opinions vary on that. Some would rather trainees not be “distracted”. I get that…but I think it outmoded.

But outright refusal to hand the grant over if asked? That is odd….almost to the point of suspecting shenanigans.

Grumpy reviewer is….

June 25, 2013

grumpy.

Honestly people. What in the hell happened to old fashioned scholarship when constructing a paper? Pub Med has removed all damn excuse you might possibly have had. Especially when the relevant literature comprises only about a dozen or two score papers.

It is not too much to expect some member of this healthy author list to have 1) read the papers and 2) understood them sufficiently to cite them PROPERLY! i.e., with some modest understanding of what is and is not demonstrated by the paper you are citing.

Who the hell is training these kids these days?

__
Yes, I am literally shaking my cane.

One duffymeg at Dynamic Ecology blog has written a post in which it is wondered:

How do you decide which manuscripts to work on first? Has that changed over time? How much data do you have sitting around waiting to be published? Do you think that amount is likely to decrease at any point? How big a problem do you think the file drawer effect is?

This was set within the background of having conducted too many studies and not finding enough time to write them all up. I certainly concur that by the time one has been rolling as a laboratory for many years, the unpublished data does have a tendency to stack up, despite our best intentions. This is not ideal but it is reality. I get it. My prior comments about not letting data go unpublished was addressing that situation where someone (usually a trainee) wanted to write up and submit the work but someone else (usually the PI) was blocking it.

To the extent that I can analyze my de facto priority, I guess the first priority is my interest of the moment. If I have a few thoughts or new references to integrate with a project that is in my head…sure I might open up the file and work on it for a few hours. (Sometimes I have been pleasantly surprised to find a manuscript is a lot closer to submitting than I had remembered.) This is far from ideal and can hardly be described as a priority. It is my reality though. And I cling to it because dangit…shouldn’t this be the primary motivation?

Second, I prioritize things by the grant cycle. This is a constant. If there is a chance of submitting a manuscript now, and it will have some influence on the grant game, this is a motivator for me. It may be because I am trying to get it accepted before the next grant deadline. Maybe before the 30 day lead time before grant review when updating news of an accepted manuscript is permitted. Perhaps because I am anticipating the Progress Report section for a competing continuation. Perhaps I just need to lay down published evidence that we can do Technique Y.

Third, I prioritize the trainees. For various reasons I take a firm interest in making sure that trainees in the laboratory get on publications as an author. Middle author is fine but I want to chart a clear course to the minimum of this. The next step is prioritizing first author papers…this is most important for the postdocs, of course, and not strictly necessary for the rotation students. It’s a continuum. In times past I may have had more affection for the notion of trainees coming in and working on their “own project” from more or less scratch until they got to the point of a substantial first-author effort. That’s fine and all but I’ve come to the conclusion I need to do better than this. Luckily, this dovetails with the point raised by duffymeg, i.e., that we tend to have data stacking up that we haven’t written up yet. If I have something like this, I’ll encourage trainees to pick it up and massage it into a paper.

Finally, I will cop to being motivated by short term rewards. The closer a manuscript gets to the submittable stage, the more I am engaged. As I’ve mentioned before, this tendency is a potential explanation for a particular trainee complaint. A comment from Arne illustrates the point.

on one side I more and more hear fellow Postdocs complaining of having difficulties writing papers (and tellingly the number of writing skill courses etc offered to Postdocs is steadily increasing at any University I look at) and on the other hand, I hear PIs complaining about the slowliness or incapabability of their students or Postdocs in writing papers. But then, often PIs don’t let their students and Postdocs write papers because they think they should be in the lab making data (data that might not get published as your post and the comments show) and because they are so slow in writing.

It drives me mad when trainees are supposed to be working on a manuscript and nothing occurs for weeks and weeks. Sure, I do this too. (And perhaps my trainees are bitching about how I’m never furthering manuscripts I said I’d take a look at.) But from my perspective grad students and postdocs are on a much shorter time clock and they are the ones who most need to move their CV along. Each manuscript (especially first author) should loom large for them. So yes, perceptions of lack of progress on writing (whether due to incompetence*, laziness or whatever) are a complaint of PIs. And as I’ve said before it interacts with his or her motivation to work on your draft. I don’t mind if it looks like a lot of work needs to be done but I HATE it when nothing seems to change following our interactions and my editorial advice. I expect the trainees to progress in their writing. I expect them to learn both from my advice and from the evidence of their own experiences with peer review. I expect the manuscript to gradually edge towards greater completion.

One of the insights that I gained from my own first few papers is that I was really hesitant to give the lab head anything short of what I considered to be a very complete manuscript. I did so and I think it went over well on that front. But it definitely slowed my process down. Now that I have no concerns about my ability to string together a coherent manuscript in the end, I am a firm advocate of throwing half-baked Introduction and Discussion sections around in the group. I beg my trainees to do this and to work incrementally forward from notes, drafts, half-baked sentences and paragraphs. I have only limited success getting them to do it, I suspect because of the same problem that I had. I didn’t want to look stupid and this kept me from bouncing drafts off my PI as a trainee.

Now that I think the goal is just to get the damn data in press, I am less concerned about the blah-de-blah in the Intro and Discussion sections.

But as I often remind myself, when it is their first few papers, the trainees want their words in press. The way they wrote them.

__
*this stuff is not Shakespeare, I reject this out of hand

Fascinating topic raised by @rxnm_ on the twitts today:

Hard to be excited that my work helped someone else get money they can use to pay me to continue being a temp. #postdocalypsenow

and

I am not ungrateful and don’t think PI’s don’t deserve grants on their own merit. It is just hard to feel it as a shared success.

This is one of the realities of the training arc. When you are a postdoc in a lab, part of what you are doing is servicing the grant game. Whether you realize this or not. You are going to be expected to work on topics related to the lab’s current funding (in most cases, biomed, ymmv, etc, etc). In this your work will be included in progress reports and in future grant applications as well. Your (“your”) papers will be used by the PI to support her reputation as a productive scientist. To shore up the appearance that when she proposes a given research plan, by glory some cool stuff will get published as a result!

But the NIH grant process can be lengthy. Submit a proposal in Feb/March for review in Jun/Jul…Council review in Sep…and first possible funding Dec 1. And we all know that means no budget, Continuing Resolution and good luck seeing your money until late Feb, early March. If the grant doesn’t score well the first time, it must be revised in Nov, reviewed in Feb…Council in May..for funding in Jul. Eighteen glorious months.

So chances are very good that the hard work of the postdoc will end up in tangible grant support results for the laboratory that only the PI is going to “enjoy”. Well, and the techs. And of course any more-junior trainees….and….FUTURE POSTDOCS aaaaarrrrrghhhhhhh YOUR COMPETITION!!!!!!! arrrgggghhh!!!! dammit!

How many postdocs think about the labors of the prior trainees when they enter a laboratory on a funded grant? And how they are benefiting from the work of those prior individuals? How many late-stage postdocs who are starting to feel pretty damn exploited when that grant based on their work, that they wrote half* of, gets funded just as they are leaving**? I wonder if any of them think about the grant that funded their first three years in the lab…
__
*hahahahaha.

**leaving for a professorial job, no biggie. but what if there has been a great laboratory shrinking due to grant loss and the timing is such that the new grant comes in too late for the current postdoc?

‘Tis the time of the year for interviewing graduate school candidates. The exact purposes vary from a significant selection process to “just make sure s/he isn’t completely bonkers, okay?”.

Michael Eisen asked on the Twitts:

what do people think are the most useful things to ask in a 30m grad school interview?

After a wisecrack or two I came up with a serious one.

“tell me about the moment you first realized you weren’t the smartest person in the room?”

What would you suggest, Dear Reader?

The latest iteration is on the Twitts, launched by queries from @JacquelynGill. You can browse the #firstgrant hash tag if you want some background.

One of the sounder bits of usual advice to new grant writers is to get some examples from established scientists. The closer to your field and the closer to the agency you are soliciting, the better.

All true. I can’t imagine someone drafting a credible NIH application from the instructions alone.

Where I think the typical advice goes wrong is in emphasizing successful applications. As if this is all you need.

I think new grant seekers should ask their friends and senior colleagues for the losers too. With, preferably, the reviews.

There is much about the NIH review process and one’s likely success within it that can be gleaned best from comparing successful and unsuccessful grants.

UPDATED: A prior post on what is wrong with the NIAID sample grants.

This one is mostly for the PIs in the audience but I’m sure trainees will have experiences to share as well.

What fraction of the people who have spent time in your laboratory have ended up with authorships on published papers?

(Including students and techs)

In NIH land (and apparently at NSF) the annual Progress Report functions as the application for the next non-competing interval of support. The NIH ones are short, 2 pages, and you have to squeeze in comments about progress on the project goals and the significance of the findings. So there isn’t a lot of room for all the data you have generated.

Science Professor indicates that she involves trainees in the preparation of progress reports.

I was asked to do this when I was a postdoc and I have continued the tradition with my postdocs. As you will surmise, I always think it a good idea to train postdocs in the grant-game. How much were/are you involved with progress reporting as a postdoc, DearReader?

Prof-like Substance’s post was asking how seriously to take the NSF progress report. I have always taken my NIH ones pretty seriously and tried to summarize the grant progress as best I can. (Yes, I rewrite the drafts provided by the postdocs – thus is training after all.) One benefit is that when it comes time to write the competing renewal application you have a starting point all ready to go.

For the noob PIs… Don’t sweat it. I’ve only once had a PO so much as comment on the Progress Report. In that case this person was, IMO, clearly out of line since we were right on target with the grant plan. More so than usual for me. And the PO also was misunderstanding the science in a way that was a little concerning for that little subarea of the IC…but whatevs. I made a response, the PO backed down and the project went on without further kvetching from this person.

So how about it? Do you involve your trainees in writing Progress Reports? Have you had any responses from POs on these? How seriously do you take them?

In yesterday’s discussion, I finally got a partial glimpse of the issue when NatC observed:

Discussions about how to manage and plan protected pockets of time OUTSIDE work to do whatever – walk the bulldog, play music, train for a triathlon, watch baseball, play with your kids or nieces/nephews ir travel – would be extremely valuable work/life balance discussions to have early in this sometimes crazy career.

In full disclosure this has rarely been a problem for me. I’ve managed to get to where I am today (such as it is) with what I think is a healthy balance of work-to-life. Obviously some, including my spouse, might disagree but the important thing is that I think this is the case. We’re talking personal, subjective “balance” here and nobody can define it for you. If you have reached it, you are going to be relatively happier and if you feel imbalanced you are going to feel sad* about it.

Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.

How did I do it?

I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.

Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

I was not, I think, willing to fail at getting the PhD. This was a defined, obtainable target for which the steps were mostly clear to me. Do the research, write that shit up into a dissertation and bob’s your uncle.

After that? Well, yes, of course I wanted to succeed career-wise. In one of the professorial paths preferably. But I was willing to…not. To fail.

There have been several defined choice points at which I did the considerably sub-optimal career move for the sake of issues that we shall encompass under “life”. (Also career moves which might have in the long run been suboptimal but looked great** at the time. Some of this initial appearance was influenced by “life”.) Sometimes I did this out of unthinking ignorance, I will admit. I didn’t perhaps realize the magnitude of the risk I was running. But I for damn sure knew there was risk. Risk of not making it in some way. Of not getting on the independent research track. Of not getting funding…or not keeping it. Of letting the lab and research program crash down to nonviability.

This hasn’t stopped and it continues to this day.

Is my virtue untested? Some might observe that. From the perspective of some it looks like I have a pretty schweet gig***. From above the waterline it looks okay. Something a disgruntled postdoc or Year 3 faculty member might think is pretty much IT. As in “career accomplished”…all it takes now is running it out like you always wanted to. No risk.

I don’t see it that way. I still risk failures of various sorts. Mostly the big axe is the grant funding….and it is a big one, hanging over my head more often than it is not.

So much like the disgruntled postdoc and the terrified junior faculty member…I could always work harder. More. Put in more grants. Squeeze out more papers. Refine my lab efficiency to maximize the data. Chase small project funds. Woo more trainees. Hit the seminar circuit harder. Go to more meetings.

All of this would probably benefit my career. It would make things go better professionally. We’d be more productive, no doubt.

I choose not to. That’s it. There’s no secret. There’s no special case of insulation from the risks of choosing not to work harder than the next person. You risk paying a price.

Balance implies tradeoffs. I’ve certainly found it to be so. There are costs to go with every benefit. Costs that may be “just” stress, may be health issues (mental or otherwise), may be definable career failures. Having “life” balance makes this inevitable. There will be tradeoffs****, people.

This is my answer to NatC’s question. Choose. Choose to take the time. Make room for what is important to you. Realize that by doing so you might fail. You might.

But you know what? These St Kern and Poo types?

I know for damn sure they’ve failed at life.

And that I was never willing to risk.

__
*don’t get a puppy to cheer yourself up.
**so we won’t count these, at the time they seemed really pro-career.
***and I do, I do.
****of course it goes both ways. you may be choosing a career path that really isn’t compatible with your desire to tour Europe with an opera group every summer. You may have to give up some of the “life” stuff

Sink or swim

May 10, 2012

Approximately how much should the PI and postdoc or grad student attend meetings together versus separately?

I think the together part is obvious and should be the majority of the time. The PI is supposed to be introducing the trainee around.

But flying solo can be great for independence.

 

The big shottes *have* to talk to you if the PI isn’t at the meeting. So I’d definitely be okay with a handful of meetings where the trainee is there without the PI.

Making it habitual, however, is MentorMalpractice.

 


Oh yes, “again“*.

As mentors and lab heads we should make it emphatically clear to all members of our labs that “co-equal” is only equal in the Animal Farm sense. I.e., not. And to secure the specific understanding that it is a nearly valueless sop.

As reviewers, we should start criticizing the practice with some StockCritique action. I suggest “The co-equal credit is a lie and a sham and serves only to buy off the authors who are not listed first. Please explain in full how the contributions are equal”.

As Associate Editors, ditto. Only in spades and with the full weight of accept/not accept behind us.

As Journals, generically, there should be a required statement signed by all co-equal authors. To the effect that “I understand that despite the foot note about co-equal contribution, this will not be viewed as such by the academic community at large. I recognize that it is not permitted to re-order the author line on my CV or biosketch or website. I have made this decision to accept the author position of my own free will with full understanding of the career consequences.

If you cannot sign onto this behavior you are admitting you are an exploiting jerk who is full willing to lie to mentees and/or your fellow trainees about their best career moves and have nothing but your own** selfish interests at heart.

ps. it is an absolute OUTRAGE that PubMed doesn’t include the symbols. This should be a trivial fix.
__
*for those who think this is a mere trifle, why does it keep coming up, eh? The websearch hits coming to our older posts on this topic never die down.
**if you are the lab head or listed-first author

A query on mentoring

February 24, 2012

One of the most fundamental roles the mentor plays in the development of a scientist is the introduction to the subfield. Making the trainee known to other scientists who make up the field. Publication is key. Proper crediting during seminars is another. Sending the trainees to meetings and introducing them around to the key players is good too.

As I said, in my view this is fundamental. Inescapable. Science is a human enterprise like any other and therefore interpersonal relationships matter. A lot. Even if they are not supposed to, we are unable to escape our biases related to “knowing” and “not knowing” other people.

My question for you Dear Reader, is whether you were Introduced to a subfield as a trainee. Did your mentor(s) make a specific point to enshroud you in a field? If you are a mentor, do you go out of your way to Introduce your trainees?

(If applicable, feel free to tell me that this is a mark of backwater, BunnyHopper dominated OldBoyzGirlz backslapping subfields and should be rigorously uprooted.)

Project Ownership

January 20, 2012

GMP has a good discussion going over at the Scientopia GuestBlogge.

I don’t want to be a petty, selfish project-hog advisor, but it’s not free for all; I don’t think that all the projects that I currently work on or plan on working on are fair game to claim as your own.

Get on over there and play…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers