Fly, Be Free

November 6, 2007

Female Science Professor has an interesting post up concerning how mentors deal with their departing trainees in terms of continuing research projects. Since she is a physical scientist, and thus her comments are most relevant to that discipline, here are some thoughts on this topic from the standpoint of the biomedical sciences.

First, some big picture context. As a mentor, if you have a long view, you should be concerned with the ultimate success of your trainees as independent scientists themselves. This is because your influence on your field derives not only directly from the publications that come out of your own lab, but also indirectly from your trainees once they become independent. One measure of the esteem in which a scientist is held is her ability to train scientists to themselves be important independent contributors. We all know of scientists who have a steady flow of C/N/S papers coming out of their labs, but whose trainees never seem to end up running their own labs. This is considered unfortunate, and even unseemly.

As a trainee, not only do you need to be productive and publish papers in collaboration with your post-doctoral mentor, you need to establish some sort of credible research program that you will use to initiate your own independent career. (I am only talking about post-doctoral trainees. Unlike in the physical sciences/engineering, biomedical/biological scientists virtually never achieve independence until after substantial multi-year post-doctoral training.) It has to be something close enough to what you have been trained in as a post-doc that you will have a fighting chance to get things going when you start your own lab. But it has to be distinct enough from your mentor’s immediate future plans after you leave that you will not be in direct competition with her. (In fact, job search committees will consider this issue when it seems possibly relevant in assessing an entry-level candidate.)

Why is it important not to be in direct competition with your former post-doctoral mentor immediately after your departure? Your mentor has a tremendous advantage if you are going to be pursuing the same experiments: she already has a functioning lab with equipment, reagents, protocols, and people. When you walk out the door, you’ll have a loose-leaf binder of photocopied experimental protocols, a couple of freezer boxes filled with reagents (antibodies, DNA clones, frozen cell lines), and, if you work with a genetic model organism, a collection of strains of yeast, flies, worms, fish, mice, or whatever. (Yeah, DM, I know I am a cellular/molecular/genetic bigot.) If you are racing for the exact same experimental result, you the former trainee are at a tremendous disadvantage sitting by yourself in an empty lab.

In terms of intellectual/conceptual content of research projects, there is a range of possible origins of the post-doctoral research project. At one extreme, a post-doc joins a lab and is told by the PI, “do this project”, and the post-doc does the project. At the other extreme, the post-doc approaches a PI and says, “I have this idea; can I do it in your lab?” In the middle is a scenario where the project evolves collaboratively with intellectual participation by both the PI and post-doc in its genesis. This is how my own major post-doctoral project arose.

The intellectual origins of the post-doctoral project influence where it goes after the post-doc leaves. In the first kind of scenario, it is solely a matter of good will on the part of the PI the extent to which she chooses to give the post-doc breathing room to continue the project when the post-doc leaves. In the second, the post-doc really has intellectual ownership of the project, and can certainly take it when she leaves. (I am not going to address right now scenarios in which either PI, post-doc, or both are not acting substantially from a position of reasonable fairness and good will, mainly because it is outside my experience.)

The more complicated scenario is the third, where the project truly arose out of an intellectual collaboration between the post-doc and PI. This kind of situation requires frank discussion between PI and post-doc, and can sometimes even turn into a negotiation. One possible outcome–more common with very established PIs with large labs–is for the PI to renounce any intention of continuing directly with the project, and leaving it lock-stock-and-barrel to the post-doc. This is much easier for an established PI with a large lab, because any single project is not essential to their future success.

Another possible outcome is that both the PI and post-doc will continue forward with the project. This is very common with junior or mid-career PIs, for whom this one project could come to constitute a (or even the) major focus of their lab. When a particular project “takes off” (or “blows up”, as I am told is current hipster lingo) in a young lab, it can become the vehicle by which both a post-doc launches an independent career and the PI earns grants and tenure.

This was the case for me as a post-doc. My junior-faculty mentor and I developed the project through close intellectual collaboration. When the project “blew up” and led to a C/N/S paper, she leveraged it into an R01 (which I participated intensively in writing) and tenure, and I leveraged it into a research plan (which she consulted intensively in preparing) and tenure-track faculty position. So this raises the important question of exactly how the PI, on the one hand, and the post-doc, on the other, will both proceed with the project after the post-doc starts her own lab.

One possibility is that the PI and post-doc sit down and explicitly divide up the immediately apparent follow-up studies that arise directly out of the project. My mentor and I explicitly decided not to do this. She expressed the opinion–and I agreed–that this “dividing of spoils” goes against the basic ethic of science, which is that no one “owns” domains of scientific inquiry, and as a corollary no one can “relinquish” to someone else a scientific domain.

Nevertheless, we had both participated integrally in the preparation of her R01 application and my job search research plan, so we knew where we were each thinking of going in the immediate future in building off our collaborative project. And we were each already thinking of going in different directions, both conceptually and methodologically. Furthermore, one of the things that made our collaboration so fruitful is that our natural scientific inclincations are quite different, and so we both felt comfortable that in short order we would both be naturally moving off into different directions in any event. Fortunately for both of us, four years later, this is what has turned out to be the case, and she and I comfortably share information with each other on an ongoing basis, knowing that, while we are studying the same thing, we are applying very different conceptual and methodological approaches.

I’m sorry that I can’t tell you how I will handle my own post-docs’ launches into independence, because none of them have yet left the nest.

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