Riffing On Establishing Independence

January 21, 2008

DrugMonkey’s post today is an excellent introduction to the topic of how a post-doc might choose to organize experimental/conceptual effort as a post-doc to maximize the appearance on the CV–and, hopefully, the reality–that she is an independent thinker capable of being PI of her own lab. I have a few illustrations and amplifications on his post below the fold.

He is correct that working on exactly the same kind of stuff that the PI is already known for raises the question of who really drove the research. The answer could turn out to be “the post-doc”, but it raises the question right on the face of the post-doc’s CV. DrugMonkey provides examples of a few ways in which a post-doc can pursue a project that leads to first-author publications that make it manifest–through their content–that the post-doc likely did play a leadership role in conception and execution of the research project.

Here I’d like to give another example. One way for a post-doc to distinguish herself as capable of captaining her own ship is to develop a novel collaborative project using a technique that arises out of the work of one lab to pursue a scientific question that arises out of the work of another. If successful, this research project results in a first-author paper on the CV with the post-doc as first author, and the final two authors being PIs of the two different labs, with the subject of the paper being novel from the standpoint of technique vis a vis one lab and novel from the standpoint of scientific question vis a vis the other. (This works even better if either the technique or the scientific question (or, even more better, both) are novel vis a vis both labs.)

And here’s just a little digression into how to plan a robust, diversified post-doctoral research program. Every post-doc needs a balanced portfolio of research projects to be working on, not just a single one. The reason is that post-docs (and PIs, but that is a post for another day) need to always be simultaneously engaged in multiple projects with a range of coordinately, but oppositely, varied risks of failure and rewards of successful. You have at least a few projects ranging from low-risk low-reward, on the one hand, to high-risk high-reward, on the other. The low-risk low-reward stuff should be from the core of the PI’s pre-existing research competence, while the high-risk high-reward stuff should be speculative projects built around the technique/question collaborative model described above. You pray for hits on the high-risk high-reward end–and if and when you do smell a hit, you should shift time and resources from the low-risk low-reward end–but you rely on the low-risk low-reward end to keep the bread buttered.

Further unpacking of the technique/question collaborative model: What you hope for is ultimately a first-author paper that establishes the utility of a new technique as a novel and useful way to address an important scientific question thus leading to an important insight in the field encompassing that question. The paper will, of course, be written using the rhetorical structure of hypothesis testing. But frequently, what actually happens is that you decide to try a new technique in the context of a particular model system, just to see what happens. (If the technique is completely novel–i.e., hasn’t been successfully utilized in any system–then the experiment is a first proof of principle that the technique is useful.) To the extent that the results are consistent with conceptual understanding of how the technique ought to operate, they establish utility of the technique, and to the extent that there are surprising aspects to the results, they represent novel tests of a hypothesis (or hypotheses).

These things are good for people who read your CV to come away thinking, for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that you have the capacity, at minimum, to combine techniques and scientific questions in a novel way that is prima facie independent, as taken as a whole it is outside the pre-existing scope of any one of the two labs. Second, the project opens up a new area for continued research involving the application of the technique (itself possibly novel) in a new area, an open area that is not already wholly subsumed in the ongoing work of either of the two labs. This indicates an arena in which a newly independent PI could operate, if not not freely from the two post-doc labs, at least equally, and not at the disavantage of competing with a former mentor in an area of her core competence.

One amplifying point is that there are other important mechanisms besides the face of the CV for conveying information about a post-docs contributions to her published manuscripts. DrugMonkey mentioned a few, which include letters of reference from (and more casual comments made by) post-doctoral mentor(s) or, even more powerfully, from disinterested PIs working in the relevant field(s), but not personally vested in the success of the post-doc. (These are the kinds of letters, incidentally, that play a huge role in the tenure/promotion process.)

But there is a key method for conveying this information that DrugMonkey didn’t mention (at least I don’t think he did), and that is the development and promulgation by the post-doc herself of a compelling narrative that describes the genesis of the project in a way that is both truthful and fully indicative of the post-doc’s independent role in its genesis and implementation. The post-doc needs to present this narrative as frequently as possible in the relevant scientific community to “get it out there” into the minds of her colleagues. This sounds like cheap smarmery, but it doesn’t have to be.

If the project itself is quite interesting, incoporating a novel technique and/or application of an existing technique in a new context, then people will ask you about its genesis and implementation. This will happen at meetings, either in front of posters or in casual conversation at bars and restaurants, and also when on faculty job interviews. The narrative can be presented in the chalk talk, in one-on-one meetings with interviewing faculty, and at lunches/dinners with interviewing faculty. These people, in particular, want to hear your narrative, as they have a great perceived interest in figuring out how the project really was conceived and implemented.

This narrative needs to satisfy several constraints simultaneously, and must therefore be carefully crafted and delivered consistently (the idea being to have a single consistent narrative propagated into the relevant scientific community via multiple vector indididuals, thus lending it additional credence). These constraints are: (1) that it is truthful; (2) that it is at least broadly consistent with the outlines of what one can expect to be said by other knowledgable parties–participating PIs and other scientific personnel, as well as colleagues who have inside information; (3) that it is laudatory of the PIs’ roles in genesis and execution (of both labs); and (4) that it makes very apparent the post-doc’s capacity for an independent and critical role in captaining her own ship.

Of those four constraints, (1), (2), and (4) are self-evident, but what’s the deal with (3)? Wouldn’t it be best to state, if it is true, that both PIs are witless boobs who would never have been able to conceive of or execute the project without the incredible drive and talent of the post-doc? Uh, no. First, no PI is going to perceive herself that way, let alone talk about herself that way, so your narrative will likely be broadly inconsistent with those of the mentor PIs.

Second, it is unseemly to bad-mouth one’s mentor (unless they are a truly unethical person, and one needs to explain an unsavory situation or defend one’s own honor against false claims), even if they are all the bad things that YoungFemaleScientist complains about: lazy, stupid, credit-hogs, parasites, uncreative, etc. You want to construct a narrative that acknowledges the fertile conceptual, technical, and infrastructural environment that the PI(s) created for the genesis and performance of the work, but also contains a key driving role for you, the post-doc, in making the conception and exectution of the project occur. (And yes, however much credit you think your mentor PI deserves for the project, there is virtually no question whatsoever that they actually, objectively deserve more.)

If you bad-mouth your mentor absent some objectively egregious circumstance, you demonstrate a lack of respect for the continuity of scientific lineages and, to put it bluntly, your scientific elders. You also make it clear that you will bad-mouth even those whose goodwill and support you really need, which raises the question, “Who wouldn’t you bad-mouth?”

Get that positive narrative out there, get enough people accepting it, and you have gone a substantial way towards enhancing your reputation as an independent thinker worthy of captaining her own ship, but also as a gracious and grateful trainee who understands the key role that receiving effective mentorship has played in her own career, and thus is poised to deliver effective mentorship in turn to her own trainees as PI of her new lab. A savvy hiring process is going to look closely at every possible predictor it can identify for whether a candidate is likely to be a decent mentor, as this has a huge influence on the likelihood of success of the new PI’s research program.

One final point: The argument can, and probably will, be made that one can learn how to be an effective mentor by virtue of having had a piss-poor mentor, and focusing on doing the opposite, and that the post-doc can make a case for her own independence and likelihood of future mentoring skill by explicitly relying on this. This is, in my opinion, a bad idea, as some assessors might feel that one cannot learn to be a good mentor from a bad mentor through some complementarity mechanism, and thus might consider the post-doc with an assertedly poor mentor to be poorly trained in mentoring. Those assessors may very well be correct. A post-doc who perceives her position to be akin to YoungFemaleScientist’s–mentor is stupid, ignorant, lazy, uncreative, uninterested, not around, selfish, greedy, self-aggrandizing, etc–would do well to find a decent post-doctoral mentor (they are out there) or, at a minimum, to try to construct a public narrative concerning their mentorship that accentuates the positive and elides the negative.

6 Responses to “Riffing On Establishing Independence”

  1. juniorprof Says:

    Alright, I have a question somewhat related to this… I am preparing a K01 and in the career development plan I have placed a very large amount of emphasis on developing my mentoring abilities. This includes spending a good deal of time in joint lab meetings with the K01 mentor (BigName with former trainees all over the field) and a very specific plan and set of goals for monitoring my development in mentoring students that enter my lab. Am I wasting space that could be devoted to other things or will study section like that I see this as one of the most important aspects of my career development? Any advice would be most appreciated.

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  2. PhysioProf Says:

    “Am I wasting space that could be devoted to other things or will study section like that I see this as one of the most important aspects of my career development? Any advice would be most appreciated.”

    I think this is an excellent idea. You should spend as much space as you can on the mentored career development program, and exactly what skills and experiences you will achieve through the mentored career development program that are (1) necessary to your success as a fully independent investigator and (2) not things you already know or have experienced.

    The mentored career development program is substantially more important for the score than the Research Plan. The Research Plan has to be interesting and doable, of course.

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  3. drugmonkey Says:

    first off, i’ve never been in a K-review section nor have I been intimately involved with anyone’s K submission. so I’m just talking here….

    I think what juniorprof was asking here was not the emphasis on career development (as PP says, the key to the K relative to the research plan). the question was rather should one concentrate on developing as a scientific mentor as opposed to development as an independent scientist. I would think that the strong emphasis should be on one’s own scientific development as a scientist. learning the additional techniques, learning to run a program, etc. I would think an equal part of the sum of skills would be touching on the mentoring.

    I would predict that too much emphasis on what a great mentor you are going to be could be taken poorly. potentially. unless you get someone like me reviewing of course.

    The key for your decision, I think, is the question of whether it makes sense in your circumstances? if, for example, you already have a bunch of eager grad students clamoring at your door, then it makes sense. if your work, for whatever reason, tends to involve a greater than average number of trainees, again, it fits.

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  4. PhysioProf Says:

    I agree with DM’s amplification and clarification. The “learning to be a good mentor” is just one aspect of learning to be independent. In my opinion, it is a key one for success as an independent scientist. Whether a particular K01 study section will see it that way is probably best addressed with your program officer.

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  5. juniorprof Says:

    Thanks for your answers… I have a very detailed plan for becoming an independent scientist already in there ranging from organizing symposia, details on developing collaboration, plans for putting all the pieces in place to have an active lab, learning some new things that will complement what I already do, etc.. My concern was I cut back a bit on the research plan in order to make space for this “becoming an excellent mentor” section. People in my dept who have read it thought it was an excellent idea, but not the sort of thing they normally see when reviewing a K01, hence the question.

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  6. drugmonkey Says:

    nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? That’s the tricky part. If you put in “unusual” stuff, you are going to get noticed. it will make you stick out from the herd. trouble is, this might result in culling. I’ve been there…

    I’ll give you a little vignette to make your decision harder. On a rather large continuation with which I am familiar, the advice from someone with a similar type of project was to take an approach that was less than traditional in terms of personnel. Something, shall we say, more consistent with current NIH bleating on the future of science. Sticking the neck out. This became a problem at review, essentially a “WTF are they doing?!!”. The thing is Program loved it.

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