On Establishing “Independence”

January 21, 2008

One bugaboo of scientific transition, and gaining respect in the field in which one works, is the concept of scientific “independence”. In a prior post I tried to grapple with the question of why we care about independence. Now I want to get into how the postdoc/senior research associate / (very) junior faculty scientists can work to demonstrate independence.

The first essential concepts are that you want to establish evidence on your CV, of the type that people understand when looking for such evidence, that you have more intellectual and functional independence from the PI than the average bear. Second, that you want to convince people who are in a position to testify about you of your independence. These are distinct issues and you will need each type of support in different circumstances, even though much of this is interrelated.

As with everything, publication is key to the hard CV evidence of your independence. “Well, duh!”, you say. In this context, however, we are looking to go a little beyond the usual of “publish as much as you can, in as high ImpactFactor journals as you can, with your name as close to the first position as possible”. The point is that even in very small labs there are usually a couple of “domains” of research going on at a given time. This may be defined by techniques, by topic, by species or other model features. In drug abuse, for example, one might have the “opiate” project and the “cocaine” project. Perhaps the self-administration models, the intracerebral microdialysis or the drug-discrimination models. The rat project, the mouse work or even the Drosophila work. Now the smart trainee, on joining a lab, is going to look around for the “hottest” stuff to work on. The stuff that has the PI’s attention, that is funded, that has the best prospects of publishable data coming along quickly and that has the chance of going “highest” in eventual journal. This is not always so good for independence.

Obviously, all of the trainees in the lab are coming to similar conclusions. Meaning that authorship position will be competitive and a given trainee might end up with a single first-author pub, maybe another 2nd author pub and a few mid-author pubs. If lucky. Meanwhile, said trainee is also jumping into some of the “other”stuff going on to get additional (middle) authorships because you have to pump up that CV, right? The trouble is that years later when someone is trying to evaluate the “independence” of the trainee, it is difficult to tell just what that scientist does. What have been her consistent contributions? Is he just there for a single model applied to a series of papers? A glorified one-trick-pony tech rather than an independent scientist? Although it flies in the face of advice for “interdisciplinary” and “translational” research (and can eventually lead to critique that an independent scientist is a “one trick pony”) at least from the perspective of grant review and generalized recognition within a field, a postdoc should have a series of pubs on the CV that tell a very clear story that s/he is interested in this specific scientific problem or issue.

So what can a postdoc do? Well I’m certainly not going to suggest not getting a middle-authorship when available. All things equal. As we know, however, things are rarely equal. Meaning that effort spent on that middle-author contribution might be better spent honing one’s own “domain”. That one should be thinking about “hotting up” the work that is of interest to oneself first, rather than riding the main stream of the lab. Of recruiting the PIs interest in your selected area of the lab. Give up a couple of IF levels just to make sure that “your” stuff actually gets published sometime soon. The principles are really the same as the general ones governing the development of your CV with the adjustment that you are focusing on the idea of a single scientific domain.

Horsetrading. A bit seamy, yes, but authorship horsetrading goes on all the time. We’ve discussed this before. Arguments over who gets what authorship position or who takes on what project abound. The “independence” issue may give you some perspective over what compromises you should be making. Is it worth abandoning that second-author (with symbol!) position on a paper out of your primary domain to lock down first-author on something within your domain? Sure. Worth letting someone do “your technique” applied to question Y so that you can do “their” technique applied to your question X? Yes.

A little DM vignette. For various fortuitous reasons YHN came out of the last postdoctoral stop with his name as first author on a fairly good proportion of the papers from a little “run” the PIs group was having in a particular area. Said PI had a rather broad set of studies going on such that it would have been easy to have distinct “audiences” which may not be aware of said PI’s other stuff. Also keep in mind that there are pockets of my field where the PI first-authors quite a bit. At one point shortly after I’d been appointed, YHN’s prior PI was walking around a poster session chatting with some trainee who said “Hey, Dr. PI, didn’t you used to work in DrugMonkey’s group“?

The point being that you should be thinking about the way things are going to “look” to the larger community, ofttimes many years later.

Another example of choices to be made is detailed by Lou of A scientist’s life. A recent post ponders the fate of a postdoc training with a PI who has left on long term medical leave.

But the problem is that now, the postdoc is on a free reign. That shows the amount of trust the PI has in him, but is it good for the postdoc?

So this opens up a question.
To leave or not to leave.

As for the postdoc… I don’t think he realises that this particular situation is not good for him. I don’t think he has the capability of churning out decent work without his boss, and I certainly don’t think he has enough work to publish.

In most cases, my advice is “seize the opportunity”. As in the chance to build a legitimate case for the statement that you would like to have in rebuttal to the StockCritique of “hasn’t yet demonstrated independence”. Which btw, you are going to get. Regardless. Reviewers just loooove this one. It is, IMO, a very strong rebuttal to be able to say “The big PI was on 9 mo of medical leave during which the applicant ran the day-to-day operations of the research program….supervised the X grad students, Y tech and Z junior post docs … time during which we generated the Preliminary Data….these 3 publications for which the applicant is communicating author”. Etc. The ability to make this sort of statement, backed up by the on-leave PIs letter if possible, is pure gold. Well worth a bit of lost opportunity in terms of slightly better/more publications that might result from jumping ship. YMMV of course. If Lou’s assessment is correct, that the postdoc is really not ready to captain the ship for a while, then of course this isn’t the right call. But if a postdoc past about year 3 isn’t ready for this type of opportunity, even if it is a “challenge” for her, well, said postdoc may not ever “be ready”. IMO.

A final bit on the more subjective perception of independence. This is getting lengthy so I may have another go at this part of the topic later. At any rate, a previous discussion we were having about why go to conferences and why become a member of academic societies speaks to the “personal testimonial from senior figures” issue. You should attend meetings. Period. While getting platform talks burnishes the ego and is an important thing for broad visibility, the action on “independence” front is at the posters. This is where the senior figures come to find that the postdoc really IS the expert in this area of the lab, that the PI either isn’t there or is standing around to schmooze while the postdoc handles the science.

15 Responses to “On Establishing “Independence””

  1. Bill Says:

    Very interesting post. This is not directly related, but what in your opinion is the optimal amount of time that one should spend as a postdoc? It seems to me that past a certain point (3 years? 5 years?) length of time spent as a postdoc becomes a negative to search committees, etc.

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    in these times I think it would be the rare field where 3 years raises objection! 5? Common I’d think. 8+? Eyebrows.

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  3. PhysioProf Says:

    I have even heard people in a position to influence hiring decisions say things right now like, “Only 3 year post-doc? Needs more seasoning.”

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  4. Bill Says:

    How long were each of you postdocs? (just curious)

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  5. Schlupp Says:

    Sounds very reasonable. Especially the bit about the postdoc and the PI on leave.

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  6. PhysioProf Says:

    After four years of post-doc, I went on the job market. My faculty appointment began after five years of post-doc.

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  7. […] 21, 2008 DrugMonkey’s post today is an excellent introduction to the topic of how a post-doc might choose to organize […]

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  8. PhysioProf Says:

    “This is where the senior figures come to find that the postdoc really IS the expert in this area of the lab, that the PI either isn’t there or is standing around to schmooze while the postdoc handles the science.”

    Whether the PI is or isn’t at the poster, or there but standing around schmoozing while the post-doc handles the science, tells you very little about whether the post-doc is or isn’t any expert in her own right. It tells you a lot more about whether the PI is a competent, confident PI, or a micro-managing anxious ninny.

    Good mentors give their trainees breathing room at poster sessions to allow their scientific development to benefit from interactions without the mentor breathing down their necks. If I am at a poster where the PI is intervening herself into the discussion, I think to myself, “What a loser, to not even have the personal confidence of a good PI to allow the trainee to handle it.”

    I admit I do take a pretty hard line on this. For example, if I am in the audience when one of my trainees gives a presentation, I virtually never save her ass if she is being asked a question and is floundering. I consider stepping in to be disrespectful to the trainee. If some person in the audience directs a question to me specifically, I will usually say, “Why don’t you ask Ms/.Dr. Trainee? It’s her presentation?” If the trainee is squirming, I let them squirm, and then help them to improve their understanding and presentation skills in private.

    I find it painfully embarrassing to be in a seminar where a mentor PI is constantly chiming in from the audience with clarifications or answers. It makes the PI look like a fearful clueless wimp, and infantilizes the trainee. Let them take their own lumps, and they’ll learn from it, and become more independent because of it.

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  9. drugmonkey Says:

    “How long were each of you postdocs? (just curious)”

    right around 5 years.

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  10. whimple Says:

    PP:I find it painfully embarrassing to be in a seminar where a mentor PI is constantly chiming in from the audience with clarifications or answers. It makes the PI look like a fearful clueless wimp, and infantilizes the trainee. Let them take their own lumps, and they’ll learn from it, and become more independent because of it.
    Total agreement from me. This is the only way.

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  11. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t know if perhaps y’all were going just a tad bit beyond what I had to say about mentors at the poster session or if mileage really varies here.

    My not-infrequent situation (both as the mentoring PI and as poster viewer) is that you have enough people crowded around a poster that one person cannot do all the presenting, detail-discussion, chit-chatting about others’ findings, etc. So not-infrequently multiple people will be “presenting” the poster. Actually these are flat out the most fun presentations, I think. As the presenting lab, anyway.

    What one should do as a mentor, of course, is to push the trainee in your group at the senior people and handle the riff-raff grad students oneself, right? 🙂

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  12. PhysioProf Says:

    I actually believe that it is essential for trainees to learn how to integrate a large group around a poster into a unified presentation/discussion, rather than a sequence of smaller interactions.

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  13. drugmonkey Says:

    Yuck. Why? This makes it essentially a platform talk give a couple of times with maybe a smidge more opportunity for interaction with the audience.

    I think once you get beyond something like 3 people interacting with the presenter at a given time you lose a lot. Everyone’s crowded in so people can’t see all of the poster nevermind actually hear what’s being said by the guy standing right in front of the crowd asking the presenter a question in normal voice….

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  14. CC Says:

    I don’t know if perhaps y’all were going just a tad bit beyond what I had to say about mentors at the poster session or if mileage really varies here.

    I suspect it varies much like it did in the discussion of the societies: you’re more likely to get those crowds at one of those meetings where the message board at baggage claim welcomes you than at a Keystone or the like.

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  15. Thanks for the interesting post! This resonates nicely with the advice from the Nobel prize winners about gaining early independence, among other things.

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