"The PI is the deciderer" is a relative concept

December 20, 2008

Most of the time on the blog I get to address maybe a tenth of an argument; on a good day it maybe sneaks all the way up to a quarter. This works because for the most part the rest of the issues are assumed to be out there in the commentariat and readership. I assume I get into issues that are at least partially familiar to my readers. Over time, with multiple posts, a topic may be more or less covered, especially if other blogs are talking about the same issues from other perspectives.
At times however, I can get to assuming a little too much about the breadth of an argument space. One of these areas is when I knock on the whiny, disgruntled postdoc perspective. My blindspot is that I usually feel that postdocs (particularly the blogosphere variety) are bright and reasonable assertive people who have no trouble standing up for their rights and indeed are a little over the top with self-interest. So my comments on issues such as authorship and the ownership of data generated in the lab trend toward asserting the unique position of the PI as the ultimate decider of disputes, too bad.
I recently had reason to consider my positions in the context of cultures less familiar to me in which it is rumored/stereotyped/perhaps true that submission to authority is a little bit more pronounced than in a typical postdoc of my acquaintance. If such individuals exist, my prior words might be taken in an unintended way.

Over the past couple of days I’d been seeing a bit of traffic on two older posts coming from this page. It appears to be written mostly in Chinese, however the referred hits are coming from all over the globe. A rough translation provided by an acquaintance of mine suggests that this is probably an anonymous forum for Chinese ex-pat scientists, likely at the trainee level. This particular discussion seems to be about a person complaining about his/her PI altering an authorship order without notice. A reply apparently says “this is the way it is all over, the PI is the boss, deal” and then comments 5 and 10 (thanks for the links ‘mingcanada’) point the discussion to a post on scientific careerism and one repost of an old one on postdocs’ understanding of the job of being an assistant professor. This last one was very well received when originally posted, let me tell you.
My concern here is that my assertions of the unique role of the PI in making the ultimate decisions with respect to publication and authorship can be misinterpreted as too absolute. I am not for one minute suggesting that postdocs should just suck it up in a clearly unfair and exploitative situation. PIs can be and are in fact bad actors. In some cases. These are, I assert, a minority. It oftens seems that postdocs think that ALL PIs are exploitative and are holding them down unfairly and unjustifiably. Not so, which explains some of my attitude in prior posts.
In any case, I do (hopefully) always make clear that the postdoc should always advocate for their own position, if it is justifiable. If you think you deserve that first authorship, make the case to the PI on the merits. If you want to take an area of work with you when you leave, again, make the case. Assertively and repeatedly if you have to. Do recognize that there is a line, however. There are valid competing interests and perspectives on ownership, contribution and rights. In short, try to be reasonable about it when things don’t go your way.
I am most emphatically not suggesting that trainees should just do whatever the PI wants, unchallenged at all times. Indeed this is a recipe for scientific disaster, in my view. It is the responsibility of the postdocs to debate, argue and persuade the PI…this is what science is all about. I think we do a reasonable job at inculcating this behavior in US graduate programs, going by the trainees I’ve run across in my day. From my own training stages on forward. It may even be the case that this career selects for a certain independent, irreverent, authority disrespecting type. In the US anyway.
But suppose other cultures inculcate or select for different values? At the extreme one might imagine a culture in which all the trainees just do whatever Dr. Big says at all times. Maybe seek as hard as possible to deliver what it is assumed Dr. Big “wants” at all times. What if that is assumed to be “Result X” instead of “the results of the experiment done the right way, regardless of Dr. Big’s hypothesis”?
This is a cartoonish example, perhaps. Some of my correspondents and agents and yes, my own experiences, suggest that there are going to be individuals who trend in this direction. With an unfamiliar level of respect for the authoritah of the PI. How to mentor such a person? How to change an established culture of putting the PI on a pedestal?

No Responses Yet to “"The PI is the deciderer" is a relative concept”

  1. drdrA Says:

    ‘It may even be the case that this career selects for a certain independent, irreverent, authority disrespecting type. In the US anyway. ‘
    Ah, yeah. For sure. But this can also get you into trouble as a postdoc if your PI rather enjoys being an authoritah type…or is maybe from such a culture…
    I know, I know, not what you are posting on.


  2. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    Holy Shit DM!
    The link to your well received commentary is a fuckin hoot! I love the vitriol directed to you. . Looove it!


  3. Coturnix Says:

    It varies with the field as well. If the research if expensive (biomedical, molecular stuff, and perhaps fossil-digging while traveling to far-away places), competition is ferocious, danger of getting scooped are real, and grants are huge, then students and postdocs do what they are told.
    In areas like ecology, students tend to have much more free rein to devise their own projects – some find the hands-off approach of their PIs a bit too hands-off, making them feel insecure and yearning for more guidance. The other fields are somewhere in-between with PI setting the main topic, and students, with a green light from the PI, can explore on their own to some extent.


  4. It is the responsibility of the postdocs to debate, argue and persuade the PI…this is what science is all about.
    I totally agree, but I think this is influenced to a large degree by cultures as well as individual personalities. Some of my postdoc peers though found that the authoritarian PI was much easier to work for as they knew exactly what needed to be done. In my tiny mind, a postdoc position is supposed to be a time for further training and a step towards independence under the guidance of a more experienced PI. If after high school, undergrad and grad education, you can’t or won’t think, write or stand up for yourself, transitioning to junior faculty just isn’t in the cards.


  5. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    My view is that I really dont give a shit. Its the natural order of things for postdocs to think their PIs are retarded selfish a-holes. I always tell my trainees that when they feel that way, they have learned enough and its time to go.
    I am so great I can completely train them in a week based on that advice!
    Dr. F


  6. Becca Says:

    *insert gratuitous snark here*
    Dr. F- you’re even better than that! You had me convinced inside 5 minutes! Or possibly I’m brighter than your trainees.


  7. Lou Says:

    I guess the only way forward is to have a frank conversation with the postdoc in question. However, that can only happen if both the PI and postdoc are willing to converse calmly, explain his/her point of view clearly, be honest, and have a sympathetic ear.
    Of course, this will break down if either the PI or the postdoc is unwilling to break their “traditional” mode of thinking.
    It may also depend on the ultimate aim of the postdoc – if the postdoc left his/her native country, was that to (a) get more experience in the States so they can go back to their native country, or (b) to be free of the hassles of their “traditional” academic atmosphere? (The postdoc will be developing as a person at the same time, so the aim may change.) i.e. is it a means to an end, or a chance to start fresh?
    To some extent, if a PI has a postdoc who is receptive to a change in ideas, then the PI is in a great position to give rise to another anti-authoritarian scientist. 😀
    Now, having said all that, I’ve seen more than a few Chinese postdocs who just will not listen to their PI, when the PI suggests something – whether it be refining the experiment, where to take the research, or even just doing the work they damn well asked for.


  8. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    I had you completely trained at “Hello.” 😉
    Doc F


  9. Although I am not someone who hates/disrespects their PI, I am also not someone who does whatever I am told. I deal with two Chinese postdocs in my lab, however, who feel differently about the concept of a PI Boss.
    How to change an established culture of putting the PI on a pedestal?
    By the time someone has reached the stage of postdoc, I think it’s largely too late to change the way they feel about the mentor-mentee relationship. They were ‘brought up’ a certain way, and old habits die hard. For some of my colleagues, it is considered disrespectful to question the PI. How can we, as Americans/Western scientists/whatever, ask them to do something they find disrespectful?


  10. anon Says:

    Postdocs from different cultures than their PI may have difficulty challenging the authority of their PI, or realising that they have some autonomy and are not simply required to carry out the desires of the PI. They will, however, undoubtedly have views on the research in the lab, and have ideas which they think about implementing. If PIs are unable to create a multicultural dialogue with trainees, these views are unlikely to come to light within a traditional PI- postdoc relationship (whatever that is). I think PIs need to be able to encourage all those in their lab to become more autonomous and carry out good science.
    Imagine yourself working within another culture. Assertiveness may not be valued. So how do you get your views across? Think about it. There is generally some kind of method, and some kind of forum which is culturally appropriate where you can express your views.
    To generalise, PIs who can’t engage in a decent dialogue with trainees of different cultures are doing a disservice to science.


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