“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:

PhysioProf responds to the YoungFemaleScientist perspective via comment on one of my posts:

“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.

UPDATE II 09/16/07: A bit more on this from  A Scientist’s Life here and here.

43 Responses to ““Postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions””

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    You have pointed out two particular important arenas in which the PI’s contributions–both scientifically and from a training perspective–may not be particularly salient to the trainee: grant writing and manuscript writing. Here are a couple more, along with an explanation of why they lose their salience:

    (1) Experimental design: PI and trainee have a five minute discussion about appropriate controls for a planned experiment. It is the extra years of experience that the PI has–and the trainee lacks–that allows the PI to recognize *before* embarking on the experiment how crucial is a particular control that the trainee might not have thought of. Months of wasted effort averted. And now the trainee is in a position to recognize the importance of this control in the future. That’s training!!

    (2) Interpretation of data 1: PI walks by an ongoing physiology experiment and looks at the measurements scrolling by in real time. Based on years of experience at analyzing this kind of data the PI notices a particular species of artifact, and casually mentions to the trainee what is going on and how to avoid it in the future. Months of wasted effort averted. And now the trainee knows how to recongnize this species of artifact in the future. That’s training!!

    (3) Interpretation of data 2: PI walks by an ongoing physiology experiment and looks at the measurements scrolling by in real time. Based on years of experience at analyzing this kind of data the PI notices a very interesting novel phenomenon, and casually mentions to the trainee that it might be worth following up on. Novel phenomenon ends up described in a Nature paper with the trainee as first author. And now the trainee knows how to recongnize interesting novel phenomena in this kind of data in the future. That’s training!!

    By the time data are analyzed formally, figures prepared, and manuscript written, the trainee has forgotten the numerous casual transient interactions through which the PI has guided the science and trained the trainee. Hence YFS: “You’re basically doing everything yourself” and (to paraphrase) “these are *my* experiments”. (Again, it’s possible the YFS’s PI really is an asshole and a poor mentor; I don’t know. This is solely a comment on the general validity of her attitude.)

    But these numerous casual transient interactions between PI and trainee are absolutely essential both to the successful pursuit of the scientific questions and to the training of the trainee. This is why I spend a lot of time wandering around my lab seeing what’s going on, why I always leave my office door open, and why I have one of our physiology rigs sitting directly outside my office door. (And this is also why the recent architectural trend at medical schools of separating PI offices from lab space sucks so much.)


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Yeah, those are great points. Some people might be a tad dismissive of the training that allowed them to arrive at brilliant ideas in the first place.

    My current jag would be things as you mention where the postdoc just ignores it, doesn’t follow up or continues with the error. This is particularly pernicious because you don’t know how to motivate change. Is one a crappy mentor who can’t communicate? Is the trainee lazy, pigheaded or just plain stupid?

    The truth is, no matter how much I go on about a dearth of opportunity for transitioning scientists, for every one getting screwed there are likely 10 that are just clogging up the system. Scientific trainees that, for one reason or another, just don’t have what it takes either smarts or motivation-wise. When you get a whiner perspective like YFS, it is possible you have someone who isn’t going to make it. OTOH, even those who are going to make it (or should) go through some bad sheist that is worth complaining about…


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    “The truth is, no matter how much I go on about a dearth of opportunity for transitioning scientists, for every one getting screwed there are likely 10 that are just clogging up the system. Scientific trainees that, for one reason or another, just don’t have what it takes either smarts or motivation-wise.”

    I don’t think that “clogging up the system” is the correct way to think about the fact that very few trainees will ever become PIs. I think of the situation as exactly analogous to Major League Baseball. There is a huge underlying population of Minor League players who never make it to Majors, or they come up, flame out, and return to the Minors.

    But even though few Minor League players ever become successful Major Leaguers, the Minor Leagues are an essential part of the system. First, the Minor Leagues provide a milieu for future Major Leaguers to mature and develop as players. Second, the Minor Leagues provide a context in which a player’s potential for making it as a Major Leaguer can be assessed. Third, the Minor Leagues provide the opportunity to eke out a living for those whose dream of making it in the Majors is not realized.

    This kind of pyramid structure–with severe choke points at every stage of advancement–naturally occurs in professional pursuits where the ability to perform at the highest level is both greatly valued and very rare. Examples include fine arts, music, literature, science, government, professional sports, etc.

    There is simply no better way to identify and develop those who have the rare ability to function at the highest levels of these kinds of pursuits than a system where large numbers of people enter at the bottom and the truly talented filter their way to the top.

    Of course, there can be distortions in the filtering mechanism that lead to unfair and inefficient outcomes in some circumstances. These should be identified and eliminated or compensated for when possible. Examples of this include nepotism, old-boy networks, and discrimination on bases other than performance, such as sex or ethnicity.

    This all may sound unpleasant, but it is reality.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    I think I would adjust your analogy. The “Minor League” is Assistant Professordom and MLB is once you’ve reached established senior-scientist status. I’d put post-doc more like college ball or something. You have individuals who are putting in minimal effort, don’t really want to have a career, do the job ’cause they kinda like it but don’t really have anything better to do. In the case of postdoc-ing it also happens to pay enough to live on for a while if your expectations aren’t too high.


  5. PhysioProf Says:

    I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this. For one thing, there is not really a pyramid base of tenure-track assistant professors trying to earn tenure. Many (maybe most?) tenure-track assistant professor earn tenure.

    “You have individuals who are putting in minimal effort, don’t really want to have a career, do the job ’cause they kinda like it but don’t really have anything better to do.”

    I don’t know how much you know about Minor League baseball, but this pretty well describes many of the Minor Leaguers who have figured out they’re not going to make it to the big leagues.


  6. Schlupp Says:

    Postdocs not knowing how important it is to publish? Sorry, but I find that one hard to believe. Those certainly must be looser postdocs.

    ‘…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.’

    You mean that funding a lab gives you authorship rights? This rather contradicts the ethical guidelines of the institutions where I’ve worked so far.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    I suppose it may depend on what you mean by “funding a lab” but yes, the PI has “authorship rights” generally speaking and IME. I’m familiar with similar versions ethical guidelines on authorship. I’m familiar with debates about what represents a “significant intellectual contribution” to a paper. The thought that the sanctity of authorship needs to be defended against endless strings of “middle authors”. Etc.

    The problem is when such idealistic ethical guidelines do not match the overwhelming practices of the field. And at this point in time, in a wide array of biomedical fields the expectation that the PI is an author and generally last author is overwhelmingly common practice. So what are the implications?

    Is it that in the vast majority of cases the PIs contributions (even if conveniently minimized and overlooked by the trainee) are indeed substantial, so the cases of truly unjustified PI authorship are rare?

    Is it that the majority of the field is “unethical” in this regard? If so, do we bring in the Dr. Free-Rides to return us to the OneTruePath of Righteousness?

    Or do we need to reconsider the usual “ethical guidelines” that do not in fact represent the workaday ethics of the field?


  8. Schlupp Says:

    It is absolutely no question that the PI should be an author if he or she contributes to the science and moreover, I’m pretty sure that this is the usual situation. (Just to get this out of the way.) But if money is indeed the only contribution, then, no, he or she should not be an author.

    I concede that this is somewhat unfair to the PI, because the PI obviously spends a lot of time on getting money. But it’s not the ethical guidelines that are wrong, it’s the way academia evaluates PIs. Especially in very large group, where such situations are probably most likely to arise, the PI is a manager in addition to being a scientist. For once, industry gets it right: A middle manager of an engineering company is evaluated on how well his/her team works, not on much (s)he invents him/herself. Academia should finally get over the mental picture of the lonely genius and accept that a PI is (partly) a manager who should be judged by how well his/her team works and not by how many papers the name is on.

    So, I don’t think we should reconsider the guidelines, we should reconsider evaluation standards.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    -shrug- well, you were the one that brought up ethical guidelines, Schlupp…

    Moving on to the point about the “lonely genius” assumption, yes and no. The system of evaluation that has emerged is not too bad. First author assumed to be major intellectual contributor and last author assumed to be the “middle manager” of the team. So far, so good. The problem comes in with those at all levels, generally through laziness, conflate the lab head with all scientific innovation and brilliance that emerges from the publication record. This is merely insulting when we do this in scientific interactions “Dr. Bluehair’s group showed that…” or “As we know from the work of the Greybeard Lab…”, etc. This shorthand laziness of the profession however turns pernicious when we believe this when making individual assessments of worth from CVs. That is what needs to be fought, in ourselves and in others.


  10. AnonPI Says:

    Wait a minnit. I thought you hated postdocs. At least, that’s what I’m reading over at YFS and amiawomansci….


  11. SciPI Says:

    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…

    DrugMonkey, as usual, you have hit the nail right on the head. I am mid-tenure and have struggled with the abysmal writing and complete lack of attention to detail of my otherwise very bright students and postdocs. It would just be easier to write the papers myself, but despite what YFS thinks, some of us PIs do care about training. I have spent WEEKS sitting down with my students and crafting language with them to make a nice paper. And tear my hair out when they are asked to take care of specific details, but forget a few here and there. Frustratingly, when things do not happen fast enough, unmotivated postdocs can be quick to blame PIs without appreciating the many other demands on our time.


  12. jj Says:

    Drugmonkey, Physioprof, SciPI: There is no question that many, many experiments are the result of a happy collaboration of a postdoc’s innovation and hard work *and* a PI’s experience and wisdom. And I suspect that PIs contribution to funding the lab is indeed under-appreciated by grad students and postdocs. This is an important point, perhaps one of the most important ways in which PIs talents and hard work are underestimated by their lab members. Typically, the critical step of obtaining funding is something that students/postdocs needn’t think about too much (and this, incidentally, is one of the reasons transitioning to PI status is so rough – grant writing is most of what you’re forced to think about).

    But let’s be realistic, because the ranting you all have done here is way way way overboard. Working backwards through your posts – SciPi: sometimes, in fact, the paper disappears on the PIs desk because it just isn’t a priority. It happens. If you’re in a high powered lab with many students and postdocs, the PI just doesn’t have a huge professional stake in the paper you just gave him. It happened to many of my graduate student colleagues – colleagues who were good writers, thoughtful scientists, and who now have their own labs. Smart people. So quit your grousing – sometimes PIs just flake on their responsibilities.

    More broadly, Drugmonkey and Physioprof, characterizing the pyramid structure of the biomedical sciences as a necessary filter for identifying talent is flatly self-serving. Grad student-dom in the US at a research university with good resource and good colleagues can be and often is a great thing. It is undeniably an excellent way to learn how to do science. The pyramid structure of science training is also, however, a bald-faced means of ensuring a steady supply of cheap labor. This is not excused by the Field of Dreams scenario painted by Physioprof. Because, in fact, the pyramid structure is notable in science for the *absence* of “severe chokepoints” at the earliest stages. There are actually very few barriers to entry – even very selective graduate schools admit a fairly large fraction of their applicants. And if you can’t get into a top program, there are any number of 2nd tier schools at which very good research happens, and these are necessarily even less selective in their admissions decisions. Beyond graduate school, there’s finding a postdoc. Locating a postdoc position requires, essentially, that you have a pulse. Postdoc positions comprise >95% of the advertised positions on any of the online job sites. It’s not a difficult thing to find a postdoc job, and this is true even at top-notch research universities. PIs at these universities are usually well funded, enjoy training grant and institutional support, and welcome new postdocs to the fold – because, of course, these are the folks getting the experiments done. As they are being, er, mentored. Emphatically, neither graduate school nor postdoc-ing constitute a “severe chokepoint”. Getting a faculty job – that is a severe chokepoint. The absence of early chokepoints in the present system ensures a ready supply of cheap labor for the lab, despite the fact that many of the students that comprise that labor have no hope of becoming faculty.

    If nurturing only the best and brightest was truly the aim of graduate science education, that could easily be done – contrary to PhysiProfs assertion, 6+ years of graduate education, and 6+ more years of postdoc’ing are not the only available means for identifying promising scientists. Admission into MD/PhD programs, for instance, is exceptionally competitive. These programs use standard measures – test scores, past academic performance, work experience – to gauge students’ potential. And they’re exceptionally good at identifying good scientists – MD/PhDs form a disproportionately large percentage of academic scientists, and they publish in better than average journals, and have better than average productivity. The point is that scientific talent can be identified early, without the 12+ years at the bench. It’s absurd to claim the present system is the best way to identify such talent.

    It is undoubtedly the case that this structure is an effective filter. It is not, however, the best means of ensuring that talent is retained in academic science. The “clogging” that you’re writing about is not the carefully crafted mechanism for vetting scientific talent that you make it out to be – it is a simple consequence of the fact that graduate student enrollment in the biomedical sciences has shot up over the last several years, while faculty positions creep up much more slowly. Peer review and competitive grant applications are mechanisms to ensure that scientific talent is identified, and they worked very well in the absence of the very bottom-heavy science pyramid we have now (too many students, too few faculty positions).

    Nor does the ever-expanding base of the science pyramid ensure that the talent pool is increasing. A poor funding environment, the necessity of long hours and relatively poor pay do not guarantee that the best minds stay in science. This is a disincentive for many bright young people. It is also a structure that’s especially good at filtering out young women, who are close to at par with men in graduate student representation, under-represented at the postdoc level, and woefully under-represented at the faculty level. If anything, the pyramid structure is especially good at filtering out female talent from science. One of the qualities that it selects for seems to be a dogged inflexibility. This does not necessarily equate with scientific talent.

    Finally: contributions of the PI. Often, as I wrote at the beginning of this post, PI and postdoc do indeed have a collaborative relationship. I can’t say that was typical at my graduate institution, however. Labs were well-funded, group sizes tended to be large-ish, and the general expectation was that as a student and certainly as a postdoc, you would come up with your own hypothesis, your own experiments, your own troubleshooting, etc. Yes – there was input from PIs. But it was quite common for this input to be minimal; by far most of the collaborative work that happened was between the network of students/postdocs. The general sense was: we’ve given you the resources – now make some science happen. This is far from atypical; I’d venture it’s typical for laboratories that have sufficient financial resources that students can be allowed to work things out on their own. It ensures that lots of mistakes will be made, but in the end makes for independent scientists.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    jj, you have a lot in here, much of which I suspect I would agree with. Try not to conflate all comments with any single point of view, though. I won’t speak for any of them.

    -your main critique seems to be the “way, way over the top” issue. i’ll acknowledge that this post and the triggering comment from PhysioProf trend toward the rant. this is a longstanding tradition in blogoland so there’s nothing specific here. unless you are suggesting (as one response would have it) PIs are in fact some alien species distinct from “real” people like postdocs. The fact of the matter is that the disgruntled postdoc voice has way more presence in blogoland and indeed has been sneaking into commentary in Nature and Science lately. There are, shall we say, a diversity of viewpoints on the “usual” disgruntled PD issues.

    -the selection pyramid. I’m not a defender of the training-to-PI system as we currently have it, nor the continuance of funding for PIs at different seniority levels. If you’ve read much else from me this should be readily apparent. In fact it is a constant theme of mine that we are not necessarily selecting for the best possible science because of sources of bias in the evaluation system.

    Some commenters may disagree with me in small or large part. But try not to confuse two issues. The first issue is the selection of independent scientists and the second is essentially an argument about, for lack of a better heuristic, scientific capitalism/communism.

    -“group sizes tended to be large-ish”. Almost by definition this shows that your experiences are atypical. At least in the US / NIH system. it is not “typical” in this day and age for laboratories to have “sufficient financial resources” to let all trainees just work on whatever the heck they want! The dependence on a system of project-based instead of laboratory-based funding enhances this. HHMI labs, would be the obvious counter example of how lab-based (aka program-based) funding works. These situations are sweet if you are in one, but they are far from “typical” (again, in the US / NIH perspective).


  14. whimple Says:

    They are typical labs for post-docs looking for a future tenure-track academic position.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    whimple and jj I think you are arguing from a certain narrowness of perspective. sure, high profile labs are going to be bigger, with more distant globe-trottin’ PIs and have more-competitive trainees on the job market. no doubt. this does not mean that they are “typical” meaning the mode or median producers of “future tenure-track academic” types. It does not mean that they are “typical” in terms of the mode or median NIH-funded PI, either.

    not every subfield is equal in terms of the proportion of huge labs, either. So there are whole subfields on science in which the “typical” training experience may be radically different. Have you ever heard of a huge EBE group for example???

    SLAC hiring committees even shy away from people that look too high falutin’ to be happy teaching and may just look on the SLAC as a stepping stone.


  16. PhysioProf Says:

    “They are typical labs for post-docs looking for a future tenure-track academic position.”

    I secured a tenure-track academic position after post-docking with a brand new PI: my entire time in the lab I was the only post-doc, there was one grad student, and a revolving door of undergrads. One of the most successful PIs in my department now, in terms of his trainees ending up in tenure-track positions elsewhere, makes a policy of never having more than three trainees total–grad students and post-docs–in his lab.

    I am just pulling this out of my ass, but I bet the big huge labs have a much lower per capita success rate than smaller ones.


  17. whimple Says:

    All I know is who we bring in for interviews here. Almost inevitably, they are post-doc’ing in a big name lab.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    “Almost inevitably, they are post-doc’ing in a big name lab.”

    ah. well this is a slightly different issue. the purpose of job searches can vary tremendously. if your department wants to hire people with a great chance of C/N/S publication futures, well sure, this is going to mean coming from big name labs-generally. if your department has a certain snobby perspective, they may just call up “their buddies” meaning big labs and ask them “who ya got?”. they might be people who have a big bias for pedigree over quality. depending on the size of the sub-field, this may just be the simplest and most universal sign-on method to winnow the applicant pool.

    in other places or in other subfields the job searches are a bit more open. or, at the least, based on factors other than the size of the postdoctoral lab.


  19. PhysioProf Says:

    I think we need to be clear on the distinction between “big name lab” and “big lab”, with the latter referring to the number of trainees in the lab and the former to the fame of the PI. While these things do correlate, that correlation is not perfect.

    My assertion, “I bet the big huge labs have a much lower per capita success rate than smaller ones”, is about size of lab, not fame of PI.


  20. […] 17th, 2007 A recent comment on the post that generated some heat bemoans the pyramid scheme that is modern bioscience. The more […]


  21. Rob Says:

    I think there’s an unfortunate trend here to disdain postdocs and give no thought to improving the mentor/student relationship. As a postdoc, i busted my ass to get my PhD. I’m sure everyone else did too. We deserver our degrees. So it’s somewhat unfortunate to me to visit sites like this and be slammed as almost intellectually stupid. I think the mentor/student team will make or break your postdoc career. My PhD mentor was terrible and didn’t give a rats ass about my training, well that’s not true, that was priority #99. Priority #1 was her tenure and publications. My postdoc mentor is already accepted as a leader in the field, is very collaborative, and is hugely supportive of my career. I got a poster award and a fellowship in the year I’ve been here, and that’s not 100% my doing, he’s been a huge help. So, if the PI is bad at their job of mentoring, things will fall apart. If the postdoc doesn’t care, that’s another issue. But i think its disrespectful to exclaim that postdocs are just doing this because we have nothing else to do. We’ve invested so much labor to get to this point, do you really think we don’t care about the field? Its probably due to burnout and the realism that only 5-10% of us will ever get a decent job.


  22. PhysioProf Says:

    “But i think its disrespectful to exclaim that postdocs are just doing this because we have nothing else to do.”

    Is there something about the distinction between “all”, “many”, “some”, and “few” that you are having trouble with?


  23. tva Says:

    I have been reading this blog for sometime now. Although I have agreed with many of Drugmonkey and PhysioProf comments, overall on this issue they are quite unfair.

    For one, blaiming postdocs and grad students for poor performance and that “postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions” is unfortunate.

    PIs also share responsibility for bad postdocs. If you, as a PI do not like the work of your student or postdoc you should tell him and not let him complete the project. If the PI allows the trainee to complete the work, well, it is your reponsibility to publish it or at least accept responsibilty for your inadequency to recognize earlier that the project had no future.

    Two, if as a PI, you consistenly get bad postdocs then you are either not very good or cannot evaluate talent.

    Regarding this comment:
    “I am just pulling this out of my ass, but I bet the big huge labs have a much lower per capita success rate than smaller ones.”

    Maybe, but nobody cares about the “per capita”. We all agree that to get a job you need high profile papers. You are more likely to get that in big name lab. This is because Science, Nature, Neuron, and Nature Neuroscience (my field is in neuroscience) accept about 40% of the papers that go out for review. It is more likely to get your paper pass the editorial review in big PI lab. Anybody who has been in a big lab knows that. Not to mention that sometimes the big name PI calls up the editors and reverses their “misguided” decision to editorial reject the paper.

    Lastly, for faculty jobs, pedigree is important. I am in big university and all new faculty appointees come from big name labs. The only exception to this rule is for people who bring new technology. Then, it matter less if you come from a big lab.


  24. physioprof Says:

    You misunderstand my point. Saying ““postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions” has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they are “good” or “bad”. In fact, it is the best post-docs–those who are most self-motivated, driven, and intellectually aggressive–who overestimate their intellectual contributions the most. It is natural for post-docs to overestimate their intellectual contributions, and an essential step on their way to independence.


  25. jp Says:

    I know this thread is nearly dead, but I just stumbled upon it and was compelled to contribute anyhow:

    When there is a poor mentor-mentee relationship, there is usually fault on both sides. If you feel that your postdoc or student wrote a poor draft, do you really believe it is good mentoring on your part to leave it on your desk for months and not give them any feedback? Everyone knows and appreciates that PI’s are insanely busy, and it can be really miserable to deal with an awful draft, but any amount of feedback at all is better (and more responsible) than ignoring the problem altogether. If you told them to make changes that they neglected to make, at least give it back to them!

    Although there is some general truth to the idea that postdocs in general overestimate their intellectual contributions, what irks me about this statement is the the use of the word “always.”


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    If you told them to make changes that they neglected to make, at least give it back to them!

    c’mon jp, in this day and age it isn’t like they don’t “have” the draft, i.e., in electronic form. it isn’t necessary to return anything to anyone…

    no, of course it is not good mentoring to leave a draft on your desk. the question is, when is enough enough when it comes to investment as a mentor. at some point, you basically give up with lame trainees because you figure that nothing you do is going to change matters. nobody is asserting this is a good situation. what I was trying to point out to some extent is that in the little reflecting-room of disgruntled postdocs, there are some alternative ways to look at things.

    “always”. gonna have to shrug on this one. look, lot’s of trainees responded to this with “yeah but” responses. responses which then proceeded to miss the point with respect to the breadth of responsibilities handled concurrently by the PI. sorry, but just about the only credible source on this is the now-PI who looks back and says “Gee, I was doing just the same job back then as I am now!”. I’ve yet to see that post from anyone…


  27. jp Says:

    “but just about the only credible source on this is the now-PI who looks back and says “Gee, I was doing just the same job back then as I am now!”. I’ve yet to see that post from anyone…”

    your points are well-taken, but in response to this last quote: I was thinking more of the postdoc who actually *gets* that their PI has a greater intellectual contribution, seeks to learn from them, and does NOT “overcredit” themselves (pubically or privately). Such people do exist! and I was implying that therefore, the use of “always” isn’t totally fair…often? usually, even…not always.


  28. mussolini Says:

    What a fascistic-ego world that of academic scienshit!


  29. Marco Says:

    You are asking the wrong question here. Maybe postdocs do overestimate their intellectual contributions. Do postdocs also overestimate their labour contributions?


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    Maybe postdocs do overestimate their intellectual contributions. Do postdocs also overestimate their labour contributions?

    Why am I asking the “wrong” question? I was talking about a particular complaint/conceit of postdocs, not all of them at once.

    The question of “labour contributions” is a good one. Many of the issues fall under the “pyramid structure” we’ve discussed, here in the thread and in subsequent posts. I’ve never really gotten into the issues of hard work, perceptions and realities, face time in the lab, time spent laboring on the wrong experiments, etc. might be time to think about this one…


  31. mystery_research Says:

    I work as a post-doc in a field that is not the same as my Ph.D., and 7 months into it I have learned from many peer reviewed papers and presentations given by people who do nothing but write reviews that 50% the research in the field I am in is methodologically worthless. My post-doc has so far been a total waste of time and effort.


  32. Cheweasel Says:

    So do something else, duh!!


  33. MakesWorldGoRound Says:

    Sometimes people (often postdocs & students) feel the need to pooh-pooh financial contributions as trivial enough not to merit authorship if “that is all they contributed”. I would say to them: Fine, go figure out how to pay your own salary, buy your own equipment & reagents, and work in a place where there are people nearby that could help you if you get stuck. That’s not too harsh, is it? After all, putting someone’s name on a paper is free, so it must be even easier than that.

    It is only when you suffer the harsh reality of how hard acquiring funding is that you appreciate it. If I worked for several years, suffering blistering reviewer comments and multiple rounds of revision to finally be lucky enough to be above the narrow funding line for a project, I would personally be very angry if I put someone else in charge of it and later found out that they felt I didn’t belong on a paper reporting an idea I first conceived of and acquired all the resources necessary to finish it, even if I personally did not write the paper or do the experiments. Now, if they didn’t use my money, the time I paid them for or require my input (e.g., they wrote a review article on their own time), then I certainly don’t belong on it merely because I am their employer.


  34. As both a grad student and postdoc I guided my projects towards manuscript-ready stories, wrote the paper, and targeted a journal. I led the way and my PI’s functioned as mentors – not supervisors. This is the way it should be. When the training wheels are taken away, the PI should not be learning how to ride the bicycle!

    My PIs took credit for my good ideas, and in return they saved me from my really stupid ideas. That seems fair enough.


  35. drugmonkey Says:

    Uh-huh. And did you write the animal/human use or chem/biol hazards protocols (and battle them through), secure the space from a hostile Dean, figure out how to assemble equipment from NIH grants that expect you to already have the equipment, maintain the funding, technical support where relevant as well?


  36. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by gryw, Jennifer Raff. Jennifer Raff said: “Postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions” http://bit.ly/bv86Jb […]


  37. SS Says:

    I’m a postdoc and I never ever think statements like “Postdocs overestimate…” is an insult of any sort. Why? Because I have come to the conclusion that the people in science are the worst, low life scum out there. Of course they want to step on and insult everyone else, because even the “senior scientists” know that their work wont be worth a piece of shit ever. People remember only Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, Heisenberg, Fermi and the like. Only about 1 in every 1000 of those exalted “senior scientists” will ever make a worthwhile contribution.

    So, naturally these pathetic jerks want to take their anger out on postdocs. Major League Baseball! Lol! What an ego! Millions of people follow that… they dont get paid gold for nothing. Your mediocre ideas need to be polished by “experienced grant writing” because they are mediocre. You do know that Watson and Crick got a Nobel Prize out of a half page paper? You think good writing is an intellectual contribution! Lol! I thought it was the science that was the actual contribution.

    Without good scientific ideas, it’s all bullshit. Maybe you were better at bullshitting, which is why you are a “senior scientist”. Good for you. But don’t try to pass that off as an “intellectual contribution”. Who’s overestimating now, sir?




  38. Anonymous Says:

    I think your attitude will lead you to management failures in the future. As a former army officer and current PhD candidate, I can tell you that most scientists are terrible managers due to a lack of basic managerial training and a lack of appreciation for the difficulties in coordinating teams.

    When you say, “postdocs overestimate their intellectual contributions,” you minimize the work that they do for you. Your 15 minutes of mentoring does not equate with the hours of work that the postdoc did prior to coming to speak with you. You will undermine your team if you put down the hard work of your people, and they won’t respect you.

    Generals don’t win wars. Soldiers win wars. And its a bad general who would say otherwise. The same applies with senior scientists and postdocs.

    You have an important job as a PI. It mainly consists of choosing project strategy, gathering resources and publication quality control. But it is a different job than the people who actually do the blood and guts work of the basic research. Its a difference of scale, big picture PI’s versus small picture postdocs and grad students, and success depends on quality work from all parties.


  39. […] keep professors in a pernament job. Personally, I don’t think this is the whole story, and this post by DrugMonkey neatly summarises why – supervisors contribute a lot more than the average disgruntled PhD / […]


  40. A Woman prof Says:

    Actually, many women/URM PIs also consistently get bad postdocs, particularly in male-dominated fields such as science and engineering.

    I have had several postdocs (including women), and while they in theory applied to work with me, they turned out to be much more interested in collaborating with my slightly-more-senior-and-about-equally-good men colleagues than with me. Of course they were all very interested in getting _paid_ by me, because my colleagues had no funding to support them.


  41. Vivian Says:

    petty reply…this is not a petty issue for postdoc’s (with families, and much time and energy invested)


  42. ThePhDScientist Says:

    This makes me laugh hard and it’s indicative of the fantasy
    world that many PIs live in! At least at the very elite research
    institutions in the United States – PIs hire post docs who can
    independently run their own projects with little supervision. My
    boss entered a new field for which grants were easier to get. He’s
    a great basic scientist but he had never even seen a tumor before.
    Most of his scientific suggestions to our project are off base and
    come from a very naive perspective from someone who knows little to
    nothing about the field. He can write well and spell out the cig
    picture of where we want to go – I.E. he can get the grant funded
    but he relies dearly in his post docs to get him there. He, like
    the poster here, would probably never want to admit that either 😉
    oh and for all this trouble and scientific expertise post docs at
    prestigious university in super expensive city are paid about 1/3
    what they could earn on the free market…what a joke! My advice to
    post docs – get out as QUICKLY as possible! First chance to exit a
    d transition to a full time position anywhere…Take it!


  43. […] The disgruntled postdoc – or disgruntledoc – is a specific species of the academic family, first discovered in the wild and described by DrugMonkey. Its body is often found in a particular non-ergonomic posture that is intended to entirely devote itself to academic science, for example bent over to stare into a microscope, crouching on the floor to put a laboratory animal into an operant box or crawling behind a rig to fix the wiring. Its brain however is mostly occupied with online conversations on twitter or blogs discussing fair pay, the difficulty to obtain grant money and general unfairness of the academic system. This behavior has been observed consistently since the early history of social media. […]


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