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.

Those of us in the neurosciences are preparing for our largest annual scientific gathering. I like to remind you to attend to a certain little task to assist with the odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I’ve had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply “Well, do you want to get funded or not?”.

This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008. I’ve edited a few things for links and content.


One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego is to stroll around NIH row. Right?

I have a few thoughts for the trainees after the jump. I did mention that this is a long game, did I not? Read the rest of this entry »

Up all night…

November 5, 2013

via the UCSD Neuroscience Graduate Students

From the Science Careers section, Michael Price reports on a recent National Academies of Science symposium on the NIH foofraw about Biomedical career trajectories. The NAS, you will recall, is a society of very elite and highly established scientists in the US. It will not surprise you one bit to learn that they cannot fathom making changes in our system of research labor to benefit the peons anymore than the NIH can:

First issued in June 2012, the working group’s report made a controversial proposal: that funding should gradually be moved away from R01 grants and toward new NIH training grants in an effort to decouple graduate student and postdoc stipends. But responses to this proposal were tepid at the June [Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)] meeting where the proposals were first presented. Such a move would reduce the number of graduate students and postdocs available to principal investigators (PIs), and make trainees more expensive to hire, some ACD members argued. That would reduce PIs’ autonomy and encumber the research enterprise. “One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do,” offered biologist Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Reduce the number of easily exploitable laborers and/or make them more expensive. Presumably by forcing PIs to conduct more of their work with a more-permanent workforce (at any degree level). Permanent employees* which have that nasty tendency to gain seniority and consequently cost more money compared with the constantly turning-over grad student and postdoc labor pool.

And reduce our autonomy to hire foreign workers to further suppress wages and expectations for the domestic PhD pool. (Individual and Institutional postdoctoral and graduate “training” fellowships from the NIH currently only extend to US citizens. So I imagine PIs are assuming a shift to more fellowships would “reduce PIs’ autonomy” to hire foreign PhDs.)

the Price article continues:

When the ACD convened in December to discuss implementing the working group’s recommendations, this one had vanished from the agenda. The discussions at the December meeting avoided controversial issues, centering on whether, in an era in which only a small minority of scientists can realistically expect academic research careers, universities were adequately training students for a range of careers beyond the tenure track.

So it isn’t just the NAS Greybearded and BlueHaired contingent. This is the NIH response to their own working group.

Pass the buck.

Really strong work there, NIH.

Anything better from the NAS meeting?

In contrast to the measured discussion at December’s ACD meeting, the attendees of last week’s NAS meeting—mostly researchers who have studied the academic labor market—were critical of the status quo, arguing that keeping things the way they are would be disastrous for the scientific workforce.

m’kay…..and…..

There aren’t enough permanent jobs in academia for the vast majority of science graduates—and yet little has been done to curtail the production of doctorates, Ginther argues. “Employment has been stagnant, but Ph.D. production has been zooming,” Ginther said.

Ginther? Remember her? Wonder how NIH is coming along on the R01 funding disparity issue? HAAHA, I crack myself up.

Anyway…is anyone at NAS or the ACD discussing how we need to shut down the PhD firehose in addition to functionally restricting the import of foreign labor? hell no….

At December’s ACD meeting, the discussion focused on tweaking graduate programs to better prepare students for jobs outside academia, and several ACD members pointed to the relatively low unemployment numbers among science Ph.D.s as reassurance about trainees’ professional prospects.

Oh, but the scuttlebutt. That’s a brightspot, right?

None of the presenters at last week’s meeting put forth any radical suggestions for how to overhaul the academic training system, but the tenor of the discussions was far more critical of established practices than the discussions heard at NIH in December 2012. After Ginther’s presentation, this reporter overheard a chat between two meeting attendees. One suggested that science professors cannot in good conscience encourage their students to pursue a Ph.D.,

Sigh. No “radical suggestions”, eh? So basically there is no real difference from the ACD meeting. Ok, so one overheard conversation is snarky….but this does not a “tenor” make. How do you know the ACD folks didn’t also say such things outside of the formal presentations and the journalist just didn’t happen to be there to eavesdrop? Lots of people are saying this, they just aren’t saying it very loud, from a big platform or in large numbers. When you start seeing the premier graduate training programs in a subarea of science trumpeting their 30% or 50% reductions in admissions, instead of the record increases**, then we’ll be making some strides on the “tenor”.

Remember though, the NIH is taking all this stuff very, very seriously.

the ACD moved forward with most of the working group’s other recommendations, including proposals that would: establish a new funding program to explore how to better train grad students and postdocs for nonacademic careers; require trainees funded by NIH to have an individual development plan; encourage institutions to limit time-to-graduation for graduate students to 5 years; encourage institutions to track the career outcomes of their graduates; and encourage NIH study sections to look favorably upon grant proposals from teams that include staff scientists

Right.

1) Nonacademic careers in science are also drying up. This is the ultimate in buck-passing and feigned ignorance of what time it is on the street.
2) IDPs? Are you kidding? What good does it do to lay out specifically “I’d like to take these steps to become a tenure-track faculty” when there are STILL no jobs and no research funding for those who manage to land them? IDPs are the very definition of rearranging deck chairs.
3) I totally support faster time to PhD awards for the individual. However on a broad basis, this just accelerates the problem by letting local departments up their throughput of newly minted PhDs. Worthless goal if it is not combined with throttling back on the number of PhD students being trained overall.
4) Making training departments track outcomes is good but..to what end? So that prospective graduate students will somehow make better choices? Ha. And last I checked, when PhD programs are criticized for job outcome they start waving their hands furiously and shout about the intervening postdoctoral years and how it is in no way their fault or influence that determines tenure-track achievement of their graduates.
5) “encourage” study sections? Yeah, just like the NIH has been encouraging study sections to treat tenure-track traditional hire Assistant Professors better. Since the early 80s at the least and all to no avail. As we know, the only way the NIH could make any strides on that problem was with affirmative action style quotas for younger PIs.

Tilghman, who headed the working group and I think has been around the NIH for a few rodeos before, is not impressed:

Yet, the working group’s chair, former Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, told Science Careers that she couldn’t “help but go back to [her] cynicism” so long as NIH merely “encouraged” many of these measures.

Where “cynicism” is code for “understanding that NIH has no intention whatsoever in changing and is merely engaging in their usual Kabuki theater to blunt the fangs of any Congressional staff that may happen to get a wild hair over any of this career stuff”.

Score me as “cynical” too.

[ h/t: DJMH ]
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*and yeah. It sucks to have a 5-year grant funding cycle and try to match that on to supporting permanent employees. I get that this is not easy. I deal with this myself, you know. My convenience doesn’t excuse systematic labor exploitation, though.

**Dude I can’t even. Bragging about record admits for several recent years now, followed finally this year by some attempt to figure out if the participating faculty can actually afford to take on graduate students. FFS.

Someone or other on the Twitts, or possible a blog comment, made a remark about academic citation practices that keeps eating at me.

It boils down to this.

One of the most fundamental bits of academic credit that accrues to authors are the citations of their research papers. Citations form the ballyhooed h-index (X papers with at least X cites each) go into the “Highly Cited” measure of awesomeness and are generally viewed as an important indication of your impact on science.

Consequently, when you choose to cite a review article to underline a point you are making in your own article, you are taking the credit that rightfully goes to the people who did the actual work, and handing it over to some review author.

Review authors are extracting surplus value from the people who did the actual creating. Kind of like a distributor of widgets extracts value from those people who actually made them by providing the widgets in an easy/efficient location for use. Good for them but…..

So here’s the deal. If you are citing a review only as a sort of collected works, stop doing that. I can make an exception when you are citing the review for the unique theoretical or synthetic contribution made by the review authors. Fine. But when you are just doing it because you want to make a general “..it is well established that Bunnies make it to the hedgerow in 75% of baseline time when they are given amphetamine” type of point, don’t do that. Cite some of the original authors!

If you really need to, you can cite (Jo et al, 1954, Blow et al 1985, Moe et al 2005; see Pig and Dog, 2013 for recent review).

Look at it this way. Would you rather your papers were cited directly? Or are you okay with the citations for something to which you contributed fundamentally being meta-cites of some review article?

Note for PIs

July 2, 2013

If your lab requires a “weekly support group” meeting, there is no scenario wherein you are doing it right.

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?

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Yes, I am literally shaking my cane.

Eve Marder has an opinion piece up in which she discusses the “luck” involved in career outcomes.

Our present world is filled with great angst. Our junior faculty are writing too many grant applications for not enough money. Our postdocs rightfully feel that they are in purgatory, not knowing when and if there will be an academic position for them, should they desire one. Our graduate students are watching the struggles of postdocs and faculty. For me, this era is especially frustrating, because it is a time of extraordinary opportunity for scientific discovery, and it is criminal that our young scientists can not experience the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery without being worried about their futures.
There is no right answer to the question of how long a talented scientist can or should remain in a ‘looking for a job’ limbo. Every individual must take into account their own ambitions and circumstances as they try to answer this question. And all of us should also be aware that we have the potential to be successful in many careers, in and out of science.

Go read (and comment).

A Twitt by someone who appears to be a postdoc brought me up short.

@mbeisen @neuromusic @drisis @devinberg Does this mean I an screwed since I have NO FREAKING CLUE what the IF are of journals I publish in?!

HOLY CANOLI!

A followup from @mrhunsaker wasn’t much better.

@drisis @mbeisen @neuromusic @devinberg I agree that high IF is demanded. I’m constantly asked to find a Higher Impact co-author & I refuse

What this even means I do not know*. A “Higher Impact co-author”? What? Maybe this means collaborate with someone doing something that is going to get your own work into a higher IF journal? Anyway….

The main point here is that no matter your position on the Journal Impact Factor, no matter the subfield of biomedical science in which you reside, no matter the nature of your questions, models and data…it is absolutely not okay to not understand the implications of the IF. Particularly by the time you are a postdoc.

You absolutely need to understand the IF of journals you publish in, people in your subfield publish in and that people who will be judging you publish in. You need to understand the range, what represents a bit of a stretch for your work, what is your bread-and-butter zone and what is a dump journal.

If your mentors and fellow (more senior) trainees are not bringing you up to speed on this stuff they are committing mentoring malpractice.

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*UPDATE: apparently this person meant for text book chapters and review articles that editors were suggesting a more senior person should be involved. Different issue….but the phrasing as “higher impact” co-author is disturbing.

‘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?

Shut off the PhD tap

January 28, 2013

We need to stop training so many PhD scientists.

It is overwhelmingly clear that much of the quotidian difficulty vis a vis grant funding is that we have too many mouths at the NIH grant trough. The career progression for PhDs in biomedicine has experienced a long and steady process of delay, impediment, uncertainty and disgruntlement, things have only gotten worse since this appeared in Science in 2002.

The panel’s co-chair, biologist Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University in New York City, is surprised to learn that this aging trend continues today: “You’d think with all the money that’s going into NIH, [young scientists] would be doing better.” His co-chair, biologist Shirley Tilghman, now president of Princeton University, says simply, “It’s appalling.” The data reviewed by the panel in 1994 looked “bad,” she says, “but compared to today, they actually look pretty good.” She adds: “The notion that our field right now has such a tiny percentage of people under the age of 35 initiating research … is very unhealthy and very worrisome.” …Experts differ on why older biomedical researchers are receiving a growing share of the pie these days and on what should be done about it. But they agree on the basic problem: The system is taking longer to launch young biologists.

We need to turn off the tap. Stop training so many PhDs.

NDBSlide243_012813This is going to hurt the many, many of us (and therefore the NIH) who depend on the undervalued labor of graduate students. This chart (click to enlarge it) from the NIH RePORTER site shows the relatively slow increase in NIH funded fellowships and traineeships compared with the more rapid increase in research assistantships (light blue). Read: graduate students paid directly from research grants. The more graduate students we “train” in this way, the more we need to secure more R01s and other R-mech grants to support them.

Spare me your anecdotes about how graduate students cost as much as postdocs or technicians (to your NIH R-mechanism or equivalent research grants). If they weren’t good value, you’d switch over. The system, as a whole, is most certainly finding value in exploiting the labor of graduate students on the promise of a career that is now uncertain to be realized. This is because the charging of tuition and fees is still incomplete. Because students have the possibility at some point during the tenure in our laboratories of landing supporting fellowships of various kinds. Because some departments still receive substantial Teaching Assistant funds to support graduate students (and simultaneously ease the work of allegedly professing Professors). And above all else, because we are able to pull off an exploitative culture in which graduate students are induced to work crazy hard in a Hunger Games style bloodthirsty competition for the prize….and Assistant Professor appointment.

It is going to hurt undergraduates who may wish to become PhDs and now cannot compete successfully for an admission to what are, presumably, going to become increasingly selective programs. I regret this. I am a huge fan of the democracy of our academic system and I wish to let all who have an interest…try. I have come to the belief that at this particular juncture, the costs are simply too high. The ratio of those who enter in pursuit of a particular outcome (Professordom) to those who achieve it is just too low. We need to rebalance. Part of the pain will fall on the undergraduate who wishes a career in science. Their chance to compete will be abrogated.

This is, in the short term, going to hurt the NIH’s output per grant dollar. Across the board, this labor is going to have to be replaced with research technicians*. People who get regular raises, benefits and work a more traditional number of hours per week.

But it will shrink the balloon of PhD trained people who are hankering to get into the NIH system as, eventually, grant-funded PIs. This will be a good thing in the end.

UPDATE 01/29/13: Check this out!

via ChemJobber
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My honest disclosure is that this one is painless for past me and current me. First, I was a fairly decent candidate for graduate school when I applied. I looked good on paper, etc. I assume that I would still have been competitive for at least one of the four offers I received out of five applications. Second, I have made my way as an investigator without much reliance on graduate students labor. So for me, this one is painless. Shutting off the tap of graduate trainees wouldn’t have changed the way I have done research up to this point.

*One likely outcome is that graduate training and postdoctoral training is going to have to include more managerial approaches. Yes, this happens spottily across all of bioscience at present but as a population, it will increase. It will involve more supervision of techs earlier in the PhD training arc. I think this is a good thing.

Tragedy of the NIH Commons

January 23, 2013

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

…a fresh look under new Chancellor Pradeep Khosla. The discussions will last into next year and are likely to lead to expansion. Khosla has said that UCSD should be closer to UC Berkeley and UCLA when it comes to graduate student enrollment. About 30 percent of the students at those two schools are graduate students. The figure is roughly 20 percent at UCSD, and only about one-third of those students are Ph.D candidates.

Khosla told U-T San Diego that the campus probably could add 1,000 doctoral students at no additional cost because their tuition and stipends are paid from the research grants obtained by faculty. UCSD gets about $1 billion a year in research grants, ranking the campus among the top 10 nationally.

The part that I bolded tells the tale. The tale of our recent history during the NIH doubling in which all and sundry sought to increase their University standing and prestige “for free” on the Federal grant dime.

Khosla appears to be remarkably out of touch with current reality if he thinks this continues to be a winning strategy.

Perhaps he should survey his faculty and ask them who anticipates being able to swing more grad student positions (for 5-6 years) in the future based on their grants.

So one of the Twitts was recently describing a grant funding agency that required listing the Impact Factor of each journal in which the applicant had published.

No word on whether or not it was the IF for the year in which the paper was published, which seems most fair to me.

It also emerged that the applicant was supposed to list the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) for subdisciplines, presumably the “median impact factor” supplied by ISI. I was curious about the relative impact of listing a different ISI journal category as your primary subdiscipline of science. A sample of ones related to the drug abuse sciences would be:

Neurosciences 2.75
Substance Abuse 2.36
Toxicology 2.34
Behavioral Sciences 2.56
Pharmacology/Pharmacy 2.15
Psychology 2.12
Psychiatry 2.21

Fascinating. What about…
Oncology 2.53
Surgery 1.37
Microbiology 2.40
Neuroimaging 1.69
Veterinary Sciences 0.81
Plant Sciences 1.37

aha, finally a sub-1.0. So I went hunting for some usual suspects mentioned, or suspected, as low-cite rate disciplines..
Geology 0.93
Geosciences, multidisc 1.33
Forestry 0.87
Statistics and Probability 0.86
Zoology 1.06
Forestry 0.87
Meteorology 1.67

This a far from complete list of the ISI subdisciplines (and please recognize that many journals can be cross-listed), just a non-random walk conducted by YHN. But it suggests that range is really restricted, particularly when it comes to closely related fields, like the ones that would fall under the umbrella of substance abuse.

I say the range is restricted because as we know, when it comes to journals in the ~2-4 IF range within neuroscience (as an example), there is really very little difference in subjective quality. (Yes, this is a discussion conditioned on the JIF, deal.)

It requires, I assert, at least the JIF ~6+ range to distinguish a manuscript acceptance from the general herd below about 4.

My point here is that I am uncertain that the agency which requires listing disciplinary medians JIFs is really gaining an improved picture of the applicant. Uncertain if cross-disciplinary comparisons can be made effectively. You still need additional knowledge to understand if the person’s CV is filled with Journals that are viewed as significantly better than average within the subfield. About all you can tell is that they are above or below the median.

A journal which bests the Neurosciences median by a point (3.75) really isn’t all that impressive. You have to add something on the order of 3-4 IF points to make a dent. But maybe in Forestry if you get to only a 1.25 this is a smoking upgrade in the perceived awesomeness of the journal? How would one know without further information?

PSA on Journal selection

November 27, 2012

Academic trainees should not be publishing in journals that do not yet have Impact Factors. Likewise they should not be publishing in journals that are not indexed by the major search database (like PubMed) used in their field.

A question arrived about publication expectations for trainees at the blog mailbox recently.

I was wondering if you would consider a blog post and perhaps encouraging discussion on a related topic, on how do you evaluate your student/postdoc performance and how common is the 1 paper/yr “rule”?

At the outset I was skeptical that much use would come of trying to answer this because the real answer is “It depends very much on subfield and ultimate career aspirations, therefore broad sweeping pronouncements are of little value.“. And this is true. But what the heck? I’ll give you my thoughts from my point of view, no doubt some others will go shitnutz about how it is clearly different and maybe we can hash out the space of useful answers.

Some detailed stuff that I thought about, but often are not discussed thoroughly include:
– I always assumed that when people talk about 1 paper/yr it refers to 1 first-author paper but not in a top-tier journal (usually “best in the sub-field” journal, e.g. Org. Lett., J. Med. Chem., etc.)

Yeah. I think one paper per year is a pretty good general starting point. Emphasis on general. For trainees, I think this average will be lower, ditto if you only count first-author papers. But it is a pretty good target expectation for the central tendency. One first author per year in a “top tier” journal is a ridiculously absurd expectation for postdocs. Even one per year in a “top tier” journal as senior author is only possible for the very top laboratories and is therefore not the expectation for everyone. If you can do it, good on you, but it ain’t typical. So if you are in a place where you think this is the standard for postdocs? please. I’m familiar with a lab that has probably one of the highest CNS counts ever and the postdocs do not hit one CNS pub per year as first author. They have not done so over the ~15 years I’ve been watching the lab’s production. So anyone who does this out there in the whole postdoc population is the rare exception.

- How do you factor in non-1st author papers? Ignoring the effects of journal IF, would one 1st-author paper = two 2nd-author paper?

There is no direct relationship, I would argue. Non-substitutable quantities. No amount of non-first author papers makes up for not having any first-author papers. They are just that important in the minds of many people, including me. Conversely, the existence of some 2nd-Xth author papers is better than not having any, because more is better when it comes to publications on the CV. I suppose at some point there would be a balance point in which too many Nth author papers starts to subtract from the credit generated by the first-author list. It would be related to the thought of “why doesn’t this trainee have more firsts if she is this experimentally productive?”.

- Do people even consider anything greater than 2nd-authorship (i.e. having 3rd authorship is basically useless or not counted)? If so, does the level of the prestige of the journal change this perception (i.e. having 3rd authorship in PNAS is equivalent to a 1st-author in some 2nd-tier journal like Biochemistry)?

In my view, no, the Nth author on an article in a higher IF journal doesn’t trump first-author in a lesser journal. See above, the Nth authorships count but I would say they are independent of the first-author credits. So within the sphere of Nth authorships, sure, the higher IF is better.

- How do you factor in the prestige or IF of the journal? Does publishing in Science/Nature/Cell count as having 2-3 1st-author papers in 2nd-tier journals?

Indubitably the CNS first-author counts more than several first-authors in lesser journals. One might even suggest that CNS first-author as a postdoc trumps infinity non-CNS first-authors. For some situations. There are those that assert that the presence/absence of very specific journals on the CV is the difference between round-filing an application for an Assistant Professor position and placing it on the long-list for consideration. I credit these assertions but would also point out that there are many perfectly acceptable jobs that would not have this absurd criterion.

- Do people take a time-average (i.e. as long as you get 5 papers in 5 years it’s fine), or is having a regular output more important (i.e. would prefer to have 1 paper every year as opposed to 2 papers in 1st year and 3 papers in 5th year but nothing in between)?

I would say that it is only once one becomes a PI that it is ever reasonable to look at consistency of output. This particular example would not even be noticed, I would say. And even then it sort of depends on the type of work you do. I know of multiple types of work in my areas of interest (particularly human studies) that have years of data collection followed by a flurry of papers.

When I have recommended shooting for consistent output, being concerned with whether a manuscript submitted to Journal X at this point in the year will have a pub date from this year, etc it has to do mostly with motivation. Most of the time the pace of submission for a postdoc is not going to be easily controlled. The experiments have their own timeline. Things come up. New things need to be done to wrap up the paper. Then there are the many sources of delay in the review process. There is no reason to obsess about 2 in first year / 3 in fifth over meeting a strict rate of 1 per year for 5 years.

The clock is ever ticking, however and since one cannot go back and fill in missing publication-years, one is best keeping one’s eye on the prize. If you haven’t had a paper in a two year span, well maybe it is better to dump out a quick one, give up on hitting the highest possible IF, etc. You have to make this judgement thinkingly, of course. And no, there are no formulaic answers such as my correspondent seems to be seeking.

Balance. That is my best suggestion.

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