When your labors benefit the next person in line

February 4, 2013

Fascinating topic raised by @rxnm_ on the twitts today:

Hard to be excited that my work helped someone else get money they can use to pay me to continue being a temp. #postdocalypsenow


I am not ungrateful and don’t think PI’s don’t deserve grants on their own merit. It is just hard to feel it as a shared success.

This is one of the realities of the training arc. When you are a postdoc in a lab, part of what you are doing is servicing the grant game. Whether you realize this or not. You are going to be expected to work on topics related to the lab’s current funding (in most cases, biomed, ymmv, etc, etc). In this your work will be included in progress reports and in future grant applications as well. Your (“your”) papers will be used by the PI to support her reputation as a productive scientist. To shore up the appearance that when she proposes a given research plan, by glory some cool stuff will get published as a result!

But the NIH grant process can be lengthy. Submit a proposal in Feb/March for review in Jun/Jul…Council review in Sep…and first possible funding Dec 1. And we all know that means no budget, Continuing Resolution and good luck seeing your money until late Feb, early March. If the grant doesn’t score well the first time, it must be revised in Nov, reviewed in Feb…Council in May..for funding in Jul. Eighteen glorious months.

So chances are very good that the hard work of the postdoc will end up in tangible grant support results for the laboratory that only the PI is going to “enjoy”. Well, and the techs. And of course any more-junior trainees….and….FUTURE POSTDOCS aaaaarrrrrghhhhhhh YOUR COMPETITION!!!!!!! arrrgggghhh!!!! dammit!

How many postdocs think about the labors of the prior trainees when they enter a laboratory on a funded grant? And how they are benefiting from the work of those prior individuals? How many late-stage postdocs who are starting to feel pretty damn exploited when that grant based on their work, that they wrote half* of, gets funded just as they are leaving**? I wonder if any of them think about the grant that funded their first three years in the lab…

**leaving for a professorial job, no biggie. but what if there has been a great laboratory shrinking due to grant loss and the timing is such that the new grant comes in too late for the current postdoc?

No Responses Yet to “When your labors benefit the next person in line”

  1. miko Says:

    I don’t really have a problem with this, science is a collective enterprise. But we (me, other trainees, PIs) have shared in putting blood, sweat and tears into the same work. Success consists of new/continued grants and career advancement. Not necessarily such a share-y feeling, as the likelihood of enjoying any of this success is massively asymmetrical.


  2. miko Says:

    Also, future/current trainees don’t bother me, all of our odds suck. I doubt the queue to the lion pit made the Christians feel like they were competing with each other. Again, what grates, fairly or not, is the asymmetrical benefit from the work I’ve done. For my PI it is additive and partial but significant, for me it is both all I have and marginal. Maybe the top half of the stack of 300 applications.


  3. Steve Says:

    This is no different than working anywhere else. If you work for a Fortune 500 company and do a good job, your boss will look good. Your success is tied to her success. In the end, you’ll most likely benefit, too, though perhaps indirectly. On the flip side, if your boss fails, it rarely benefits you. Embrace your boss’s success, even if it’s difficult to do.


  4. miko Says:

    I have worked at a Fortune 500 company and a couple smaller private sector places. When I did my job well, it did benefit my boss. I was also promoted and got raises.

    The difference here is that I don’t have a job, and I don’t get raises or promotions. I have a temporary training position with no path for advancement, as does everyone else who is contributing to the PI’s success.


  5. Beaker Says:

    This is a feature of all pyramid schemes. If I get you to buy into my Amway network, I benefit. You just get a bunch of over-priced cleaning products. Only when you bring in new people do you get a return on your “investment.”


  6. Joe Says:

    “Hard to be excited that my work helped someone else get money they can use to pay me to continue being a temp.”
    Wow, that’s short-sighted. My post-doc advisor has helped me a lot over my career, and I try to do the same for my trainees. If the advisor gets a grant funded based on work of the post-doc, the advisor can re-pay the post-doc many times over in the form of job opportunities, speaking slots, grant advice, and help with promotion. Also, if your lab, your advisor, your project succeed, then it reflects well on you.


  7. miko Says:

    Joe, you do realize that all of that means squat for the vast majority of postdocs, who will never have the opportunity of a faculty position?


  8. Joe Says:

    miko, Job opportunities, speaking slots, grant advice don’t matter if you are going to industry? I say they do.
    If what you meant was, the post-doc should get some direct benefit now, then I agree. The advisor should raise the post-doc’s salary and make sure the post-doc gets to go to that overseas meeting.


  9. AA Says:

    Joe, I think in a previous blog post, a number of commenters have pointed out that there can be significant red tape in raising post-doc’s salary based on “performance”. It’s a nice sentiment, but reality sucks sometimes…


  10. Joe Says:

    @AA There’s paperwork involved, but it is worth the hassle.


  11. miko Says:

    Ah yes, “going to industry” used to be a thing, right?


  12. Flackulty Says:

    Once a senior postdoc didn’t want to share reagents he had developed (offered by the PI as the starting point), setting me back in my postdoc project. Turns out 2 years later he needed my project to be further along so that he had something bring to his faculty job. Whooops. Helping the next generation is helping yourself.


  13. AA Says:

    Yeah, I do agree that the twitter feed is rather self-centered and a good example of *really short-term* thinking. Makes me wonder how the post-doc managed to get that far in the first place. Even if one is motivated only by self interest, setting up your work to benefit the next person in line at the very least gets you one citation, cause somebody in the world actually used the stuff you made! Depending on how much effort you went into helping your successor and on lab culture, it may even net you a paper for little effort. Sure, you won’t be 1st author, but it’s a pretty good bang for the buck (effort).


  14. miko Says:

    You should read what was written. I was talking about the PI’s obtaining a grant and the asymmetry in the benefits to me vs. the PI for the work I’ve done. I do not think that it is “wrong” in any sense that the PI should get that grant… I don’t have a lab to get it in. However, the fact that my work contributed significantly to my PI’s chances of obtaining further funding, tenure, other projects in the lab, etc, is not in question. For me, the benefit is a slight increase in the very small possibility that I will be able to be a scientist at all.

    It has nothing to do with my work “benefitting” future trainees. I have contributed to and been co-author on several other projects that have marginal impact on my career prospects at, again, significant time and effot. I’ve spent a large amount of timing training grad students and will be leaving either a large portion of the project I initiated with grad students in the lab (if I get a TT job) or a 100% of it, if I don’t. I do this because I enjoy science and work in a collaborative environment.

    Not sure what the fuck is “short term” about any of this, other than the career prospects of me and every other postdoc I know.


  15. aaaa Says:

    To the person who resents that his hard work helped get a grant to support the next trainee: ever wonder where the grant that supported _you_ came from? From the previous trainee’s hard work, right? So you’re just paying your debt; suck it up!


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    And as always, I hope we can generalize from the specific example instead of trying to psychoanalyze one or two Twitts.

    The general is usually more interesting


  17. miko Says:

    Where do you get “resentment”?

    I swear… the fucking chips on people’s shoulders at the slightest suggestion that there is an asymmetry in the payoff for successful work between faculty and trainees is breathtaking.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    There’s a PI / mentor part in this that I find to be of interest, for example. Trainees may not feel the same as we do about how work needs to advance (dance?) in tune with the grant cycle.


  19. CE Says:

    I still want to know who is putting a gun to the head of all of the biology Ph.D.’s telling them they must do a postdoc OR ELSE. The culture of extended postdocs and monumental bitterness is unfortunate.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    What part of “fulfilling career aspirations”‘is unclear to you CE?


  21. anonymous postdoc Says:

    I have never worked for a big deal PI, or in a large lab. I assume this has materially damaged my chances at a faculty position, though I will still give it a shot with some big deal co-mentors on this K99, and I do have some cool data in the pipeline…but really, whatever, I get to play with these million dollar machines for a few years and we will see what comes next. I will say, though, that I have never felt anything other than pride and happiness that my work helped my mentors look good. Maybe it is because these labs were smallish and newish that my work isn’t incremental to them, but was in fact a substantial contribution to their laboratory, and their increased profile in turn reflected back on me substantially, because I was one of only a few members of that laboratory. I certainly understand the reasons why people choose BSD labs and the perks are undeniable. But I would not have thrived in that situation, which would have inspired the same resentment in me that drips off of Miko’s comments.


  22. miko Says:

    You guys are weird. I am not resentful of my PI (who is non-BSD, non-tenured, and can count postdocs on one hand) or anyone in the lab.

    All I meant is that it is difficult not to recognize that the individual efforts we have put into our collective success are not returned proportionally in terms of career benefits. My work (and my PI’s and co-author’s) has helped set me up to maybe get 1 more job interview. It has helped set my PI up for tenure. See the difference?

    These are not the only reasons to do science and I never said they were. But it is sharecropping, with terms highly favorable to the land owner. Fine. It has nothing to do with my relationship with my PI or colleagues, or how I view how my work will be scientifically used by others in our outside the lab.

    That is all.



  23. Spiny Norman Says:

    A decade out, more than 2/3 of the work in the lab where I was a grad student is on projects that I initiated in my thesis work, and other labs are also continuing to publish papers in areas I opened (including a recent Science paper that the first spent 2 of its 4 figures reproducing data that I published a decade ago — without citation. Lüsers.). For my grad lab and a collaborator, my grad work yielded at least three RO-1 grants, all repeatedly renewed. At times I have thought that a bit unfair, and in some ways it is.

    On the other hand: I am proud of the work I did. My advisor’s choice to continue work on those projects, and the fact that others have built on my work, means that even if I’d dropped out of science, I’d have done something of lasting value. We now understand basic features of at least two major diseases that we did not understand before my grad work, and I contributed in significant ways to those advances.

    As Tom Sizemore’s character says in Heat, for me that is the action, and the action is the juice. I did not get into this game to have a career; I got into it to make discoveries. To learn things that no one had ever known before. To help to build the edifice of human knowledge. Even if I quit or am pushed out by NIH downsizing, no one and nothing can ever take that away from me.


  24. Spiny Norman Says:

    Hey, lkkke. If you want to talk about dogs, do it in a thread about dogs. Otherwise, please feel free to fuck off.


  25. miko Says:

    Dangerously close to a #passion argument, there, Spiny, but I feel you.


  26. Dave Says:

    This only starts to become a problem as you begin to want to transition out of the postdoc phase. You have to be more aggressive in making sure that your contributions are properly recognized in terms of your current career stage. For me at the moment that means grants, grants and more grants.

    I hear you Spiny!!!


  27. Spiny Norman Says:

    Of course, Miko.

    Relatively few of my outs-de-of-work friends are scientists. Many are artists, do community theater, work in environmental activism, etc.

    They do not have the sorts of #illusions that many scientists have about someone owing them a career track. That has certainly influenced my thinking.

    It is an historical anomaly that someone might be able to have a bourgeois life as a career scientist.

    A situation that has only existed for perhaps the last hundred years of human history, and even then in only a few places. It’s a great idea and one that should be promoted, but anyone who views this as something normal, rather than as than a lovely and surprising anomaly, probably needs to take a longer view.


  28. Spiny Norman Says:

    that should be “outside-of work.”


  29. miko Says:

    Almost everything about the society/culture we live in is a historical anomaly. On the whole and statistically speaking, our ideas about marriage/weddings are Victorian, our economy is post-colonial capitalism, our food is mass produced in a way that’s existed for about 50 years, we live longer, die slower, we recently stopped living with/near our extended families, we’ve moved from rural areas to cities and suburbs. We had one generation get super fucking rich because we learned how to build stuff and grow tons of food super fast, and now we’re going to jitter, stall and maybe stave off collapse for the next while.

    All of this is in a few generations. So I don’t think think much of arguments about normalcy on historical time scales. But sure, I’d like to be the last person who gets tenure before everyone with a PhD is webcam adjuncting for University of Phoenix in their pajamas.

    It is certainly not about being “owed” anything, but it is about reasonable expectations. I consider pre-90s rates of >50% of PhDs ending up in tenure track or other preferred researcher position as reasonable, with a few other relevant careers coming next and “other” bringing up the rear. This has been completely inverted, but I think it is still the norm in most professions that require postgraduate training, and I attribute that inversion entirely to the fucked up funding and training systems peculiar to biomedical research .

    Recently, the law has started experiencing something similar (though no where near the abysmal outcomes for PhDs). What has happened in response is rigorous evaluation and reporting requirements for programs about student outcomes (and, recently, they even mandated that these reports be true), regulatory responses from professional organizations concerned about an unstable job market, etc.

    Meanwhile organizations like SfN think they should maybe try to gently encourage drug companies to keep hiring PhDs. Also, consider being a science writer or editor.


  30. Spiny Norman Says:

    “I consider pre-90s rates of >50% of PhDs ending up in tenure track or other preferred researcher position as reasonable.”

    That’s a much higher percentage than I would have imagined, though I suspect it depends rather sensitively on the definition of “other preferred researcher position.”

    In any case I don’t think that we actually disagree, Miko. My point is not to be Panglossian, to argue that we live in the best of all possible worlds. In fact I think that many aspects of the current reality (including, but extending well beyond basic biomedical research science) are pretty well fucked.

    I was, however, offering a reminder that there do exist reasons beyond careerism to devote one’s time to research, just as there are reasons why one might take a low-paying job to work in the arts, or write a dissertation on Kafka, or work in a social advocacy job that pays near-poverty wages.

    Of course these are not sustainable models for the scientific enterprise as a whole. What’s more any industrialized nation that does not sustain its scientific enterprise doomed, and probably deserves to be doomed. And I think that a healthy nation will honor and care for its teachers and researchers and artists just as it honors its firefighters and soldiers.

    But these are (partially) distinct questions: how should individuals choose to spend their lives and efforts, and how should nations — which benefit from these efforts — reciprocate?


  31. David Says:

    I would just like to note that “I’d like to be the last person who gets tenure before everyone with a PhD is webcam adjuncting for University of Phoenix in their pajamas” would be the best mission statement ever for those ridiculous Individual Development Plans that are all the rage now.


  32. Eli Rabett Says:

    So how do postdocs get jobs (the one that do). That is the value to them of the work they do.


  33. miko Says:

    I agree with you Spiny, I just thought it was fucked up that I was painted as short-sighted, entitled, disgruntled, selfish, etc, etc, for pointing out one of a thousand tiny frustrations and ironies created by what everyone agrees is a broken system. In a fucking tweet.


  34. CE Says:

    @DM: What part of “fulfilling career aspirations”‘is unclear to you CE?

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

    The current system operates by having way way way more postdocs than faculty positions. And yes, most postdocs want faculty positions and are simply trying to “fulfill career aspirations”. On some level, the postdoc needs to come to grip with reality: most postdocs will toil away for years without obtaining that coveted position. This SHOULD be a calculated risk, not an uncalculated one. If they start the postdoc position, they need to come to terms with the fact that they will need to excel relative to their peers in order to get what they want, which is inherently unlikely.

    What they have no control over = the system: many postdocs, few professors
    What they have control over = whether or not they start a postdoc or stay a postdoc, knowing the risks. This is the choice that most don’t acknowledge- but it is very much a choice.

    We can bitch all we want about the system but it won’t be changing in a hurry.


  35. drugmonkey Says:

    I disagree that professors have no control. We can and should stop training so many PhDs. It is scary but it IS possible to shift your research program to depend more heavily on fully compensated labor. Technicians and longer-term research scientists. We have any number of excuses but the bottom line is that each and every PI has a choice. There is a risk in terms of productivity per grant awarded. Sure. And *maybe* a risk of failing to get lifetime cred for the discoveries of postdocs laboring in your lab.

    ….virtue untried and all that jazz.


  36. anonymous postdoc Says:

    I know that this thread is probably done, but I think it is funny how Miko thinks that doing something that gets his/her PI getting a better shot at tenure isn’t a benefit to Miko. That 1 extra job interview will go a lot more smoothly for someone coming out of newly-tenured Dr. So and So’s lab than for someone coming out of “Dr. So and So’s group, I heard she’s moving to Third Tier U soon because she didn’t get tenure.”

    I guess the thing is that I like my PI and I want my PI to do well as a person. I guess a lot of people work for some degree of asshole though so that’s not a solution for everyone. I’ve worked for an asshole, briefly, and I do somewhat resent my contributions that went to benefit that lab. But the solution was to get up out of that scene ASAP to a new postdoc, not seethe about the unfairness of it all.


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