How many are deserving?

September 5, 2007

YoungFemaleScientist took umbrage at a recent post from YHN in which there was some discussion of the usual postdoc / grad student meme about exploitation within the system. I was pointing out that sometimes postdocs can be a little blind about what it really takes to be a PI. Amidst a rebuttal insisting that, no, she’s really the unique postdoc that “gets it” and is indeed being screwed by the system, YFS notes:

Another great example of the Blame the Victim mentality.
In the best of circumstances, I’d like to think that most of us would be wildly successful.
Throw some roadblocks in the mix, and most of us would quit. And there’s no doubt I have the scientific ability
.

Regular readers will note that I follow a theme suggesting that some deserving scientists are being unjustifiably hindered, blocked and dissuaded in the transition to scientific independence. Also that I have some pointed views on how grant review may need to be adjusted to fix the problem. In meatspace discussions anyway, it is fairly common for me to be misunderstood with people thinking I am taking YFS’ position that “most” scientists would be “wildly successful” as PIs. I don’t take this position at all. In fact I think it is still a minority of those that enter grad school that can and should succeed as eventual PIs.

The question is, what fraction? What fraction, say, of postdocs who are interested in an independent career, trying to have an independent career actually deserve an independent career? That, DearReader, is the interesting question. At your level of training / career progression, what fraction of trainees are bozos? What fraction are getting screwed by the system?

Or, do you take the definitional position that those that “make it” are worthy and those that do not were just not up to it?

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4 Responses to “How many are deserving?”

  1. bikemonkey Says:

    Going by the couple of grad student classes surrounding and including mine and postdocs in labs I’ve trained in, oh, maybe 25% make it into core “academic” type postings from prof to soft-money research. Especially if you are fuzzy about the research side of big pharma. Maybe another 25% if you group in biotech, biotech services, contract research and other things that are pretty related to my fields. Far from hard numbers though.

    My trainees aren’t numerous enough yet, nor has enough time elapsed to make a meaningful account.

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  2. Neuro-conservative Says:

    My grandfather always used to talk about the 80-20 rule of organizations. His version was a corruption of the more sophisticated Pareto Principle, but it still seems to work pretty well: he said that in any organization (or, more broadly, professional field), 20% of the people really knew what they were doing and move the field forward, and 80% were (at best) treading water or skating by on the efforts of the 20%. To the extent this is true, it is probably true at all levels, since people tend to rise to the level of their incompetence (Peter Principle). Perhaps this is overly cynical, but the trick is, that 80% of people think they are in the 20%!

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  3. Neuro-conservative Says:

    More seriously, it has taken me a long time to realize that they are many ways for people to succeed as PI’s. There are several (largely) orthogonal traits that people can bring to bear as they try to succeed — (to name a few): 1) raw intellect; 2) hard work/determination; 3) social/political skills; 4) aggression.

    Everyone can be viewed as having some combination of “scores” on these “scales”. For example, the two or three people who are universally agreed to be at the top of my subfield seem to score high on all 4 of these dimensions. Most of us score higher on some than on others.

    Unfortunately, many young people (such as myself a few years back) seek out science/academia thinking they can avoid 3 & 4, which they associate with the “dog-eat-dog” business world. Therefore, they are shocked to see the degree of success that is enjoyed by people for whom score(3+4)>score(1+2).

    I think the real problem here is the discrepancy between the idealized image of the field, perpetuated by people at all levels, and the reality. It also seems that 3 & 4 are increasingly valued higher up the scale, as political gamesmanship in organizational structures becomes more critical to one’s career. It appears to me that greater rewards can flow from 3&4 in the (relative) absence of 1&2, than vice-versa — an understandably human outcome. Although dismaying, fighting human nature is generally not a good career move. Better to understand and adapt, and try to be the best investigator one can be.

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  4. drugmonkey Says:

    “Unfortunately, many young people (such as myself a few years back) seek out science/academia thinking they can avoid 3 & 4, which they associate with the “dog-eat-dog” business world. Therefore, they are shocked to see the degree of success that is enjoyed by people for whom score(3+4)>score(1+2).”

    Preach on, Neuro-con, preach on. And one might add that the very ignorance of the competition on this score enhances the relative value of 3&4 traits in this career.

    “Better to understand and adapt, and try to be the best investigator one can be.”

    A fair enough mission statement for much of what I try to do with this blog.

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