First rule of Science Mentor Club

December 14, 2016

The very first rule of PI/mentorship is get your trainees first author publications.

This is the thing of biggest lasting career impact that you can determine almost with absolute control.

Yes, things happen but if you are not getting the vast majority of your trainees first author pubs you are screwing up as a mentor.

So. 2017 is about to start. Do you have a publication plan for all of your postdocs and later-stage graduate students?

Obviously I am in favor of active management of trainees’ publishing plans. I assume some favor a more hands-off approach?

“Let the postdoc figure it out” has an appeal. Makes them earn those pubs and sets them up for later hard times.

The problem is, if they fail to get a publication, or enough, their career takes a bad hit. So ability to grunt it out isn’t ever used.

42 Responses to “First rule of Science Mentor Club”

  1. boehninglab Says:

    Our Ph.D. program requires at least one first author research publication to graduate.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Interestingly, I am *not* in favor of such as a requirement of the PhD.


  3. eeke Says:

    Is this a male privilege thing that you’re promoting? I have known a number people (all women, including myself) who were denied first authorship in favor of some dude trying to get ahead in his career. And supported by the PI. So fuck this. This is not mentorship, it is discrimination. Yes, first author spots are EARNED, they not a fucking gift that anyone is entitled to.


  4. Pinko Punko Says:

    Why, DM? Discussion over such requirement is taking place in places I know. Issue seems less to be students having the work, but mentor sitting on it- and not that students are getting out early w/o papes, but that mentors allowing them to hang around for long time, and then still leaving w/o publishing. So not having the paper is more on the mentor side.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Who said anything about gifts, eeke?


  6. aspiring riffraff Says:

    @Pinko Punko I’ve seen it go both ways. A PI at my grad institution was notorious for sitting on papers for years, until trainees had long since moved on. Currently I’m watching a PI use every possible incentive (carrots, sticks) to get their grad student to write/submit.


  7. wally Says:

    In terms of first authored pubs for grad students – I was criticized in my F32 app for not having more (I have 3, although only one is an empirical article).

    I have trouble figuring our realistic goals for number of pubs I should get getting a year as a post doc. Anyone have any thoughts? I’ve heard so many different recommendations – 5 pubs altogether a year, 2o in the whole post-doc … one first-authored per year (but that seems low to me). I know it varies by discipline, just curious as to what others think.


  8. Weary Postdoc Says:

    Agree with Pinko Punko! I’ve had 2 separate manuscripts ready to submit for > 1 year, with all other co-authors ready to submit EXCEPT the PIs / mentors. Each Has asked for small revisions / additions every few months….the changes are made in 1 day or less and still no submissions. Asked if I could handle the submission, both PIs said “no I NEED to handle this for my grants.” Asked what was the hold-up…one PI answered “the data is good, but I just don’t think it’s (proceeds to snap fingers).” No other answer given. When the issue has been addressed with department chairs grad students / postdocs are told….”it’s the responsibility of the trainees to publish.” So the bottom line is FIND GOOD MENTORS!


  9. zb Says:

    “I know it varies by discipline, just curious as to what others think.”

    It really does vary by discipline. You have to do your own discipline specific research.

    The research needs to include a reasonable definition of your discipline, though. There are some fields that are pretty narrowly defined (partly because the resources required to do them are only narrowly available — and thus, either there’s a job for someone who needs that resource or there isn’t). Other fields are more broadly defined because a group could be hiring in xx or yy or zz depending on who looks better when they are ready to hire.


  10. zb Says:

    I disagree with you about grad students *not* needing first author publications and don’t see how you differentiate between post-docs & grad students on this basis. True, post-docs are looking for permanent positions next, while grad students are only looking for post-docs, but publications are the currency of science for everyone.

    Maybe something else that is field specific?


  11. 5th year PI Says:

    The PI certainly has some control over this, but a PI can’t make data and pubs appear out of thin air. On the other hand, I do occasionally give my new students a chance to get on papers by having them help to address reviewer comments. Having a paper (that I basically gave them) makes them more competitive for fellowships, so it’s a win win situation.

    Sometime early on in my grad student career, someone told me that if you have at least one publication every year with no gaps, then you will be seen as both consistent and highly productive. I took this to heart. Ever since my second year in grad school, I’ve had at least one paper per year. Even as a new PI, I hit the lab running and cranked out a short report in the first year. In all of my many grant reviews, I’ve always been scored as highly productive even though most of my papers are not in glam journals. My purpose in saying this is twofold. First, the one pub (minimum) per year, never missing a year, is a great goal to strive for. Second, I made this happen for myself. I didn’t wait for my PIs to tell me to make a high quality figure, or write a draft, or write a cover letter, or respond to the reviewers. I just did it.


  12. David Says:

    @drugmonkey, I’m curious why you are not in favor of such as a requirement of the PhD. I’m sure I’m missing something, but it seems like a low baseline (although this may be field specific). My adviser required 2 first author publications for an MS. It put pressure (the good kind) on me to write, something that was like pulling teeth at the time. It also meant that my PI was committed to having me publish. Everyone in the lab knew, before they ever agreed to enter the lab, that they would be the first author on publications of their own project.

    @eeke – I don’t see an offer for privilege in “Do you have a publication PLAN for ALL of your postdocs and later-stage graduate students?” [emphasis added]


  13. eeke Says:

    @ David,
    I’ve had the unfortunate experience that this “plan” amounted to offering first authorship as a guest spot at the expense of others who did the work to earn that spot. I think the sarcastic tone of “”Let the postdoc figure it out” has an appeal. Makes them earn those pubs..” rubbed me the wrong way. Of course they should earn the pubs, although I do agree that a PI needs to guide trainees in preparing their data for publication. I don’t see a problem with that, nor do I see a problem of manuscript publication as a requirement for earning a Ph.D. Ph.D. thesis work that is not published is a major fail for both the candidate and advisor.


  14. Yizmo Gizmo Says:

    Why does the PI get to be on the paper?
    He/she didn’t do the work, unlike days of yore. There should be something like “grant money obtained by” or “submitted by” for the PI like they have on PNAS papers.
    I’ve just seen too many people give credit to the PI and can’t name the first author
    of the publication in the last 15 years.


  15. UCProf Says:

    I’m with DM.

    There’s two problems with the “require one first author publication to graduate rule”.

    First, publication rates are discipline specific, so there are some labs where one paper is clearly insufficient to graduate. If you put that rule up, you set some people up with false expectations.

    Second, sometimes you get students whose goals and circumstances have changed since they entered graduate school. They have done all the research and written up their PhD thesis, but they have no interest in pursuing a conventional career in science. Maybe they want to go to law school, or medical school, or start a company, etc. What’s the point in having them stick around and putting together a mediocre paper when it will have no bearing on their future?


  16. David Says:

    @ eeke
    The issue you experienced is terrible. I think that is why I liked the approach my adviser took. Things were transparent and expectations were clearly defined at the beginning. Granted, this was a lab where there were multiple small projects. Collaboration was required, but every grad student had their own project. I am sure things get messy when the lab has a more singular focus.

    I have a coworker who seems to think that the first person to create a paper outline gets to be the first author on group projects. It is overdue, but my team lead has finally started to name the first author before the project begins. This defines the person responsible for the project and eliminates the issues we were having of picking a first author at the last minute.


  17. eeke Says:


    I don’t see the logic in having qualifications for a Ph.D. be dependent on the student’s career goal. That’s absurd. Part of science is communicating the result, which in most disciplines I’m familiar with, means publishing the result.


  18. Jonathan Badger Says:

    @Yizmo Gizmo
    Actually, it was in the olden days that grad-student only papers were a thing. The 1958 Messelson-Stahl paper on the semiconservative replication of DNA was published when both were grad students (and their advisors weren’t on it). I suppose the argument why that was possible was that it was before advisors needed publication metrics to actually be funded.


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    zb- publications are good for grad students. And as mentors we should be trying to get them pubs. I object to publication as a *requirement* of the PhD.

    David- my view is that PhD is training to do science. This can be easily evidenced to the examining committee absent an accepted publication. On the negative side, pub requirements allow all sorts of labor exploitation into the training environment. Four years should be the median time to PhD.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    5th year- I am pretty sure that is the job description of the academic science PI- make publications appear. It’s what we are expected to do as first principle. This is why I think it is welll in our ability to plan publications for trainees.


  21. Pleb Says:

    I agree, and during my time as a grad student I observed many talented people around me enter their PhD seeking an academic track, only to find that they weren’t truly suited to it, and vice versa. This group of my peers included some who got first-author papers, and some who didn’t and all were granted a PhD in the end. I think there is tremendous value in the people in a lab who do solid work, who contribute solid data to group projects on which they are not the leader, who contribute strongly to important discussions in lab meetings that crack that nagging data set that doesn’t make sense at first, but in the end who may not move their own solo project to fruition in the form of a pub.

    We can’t ignore that pubs are 50% luck, and 50% grit, or some approximation of that, and entirely field dependent. The guy above suggesting 20 pubs total for postdoc, crazy in my field, unless we’re talking really low end journals. Some people just don’t get a break in their project despite their talent. I still think these people deserve their PhDs.

    That being said, my old boss ensured that all grad students in her lab had their own project from the beginning, and did her best to motivate them to do their best work on it no matter the outcome, and even sometimes in the face of obvious evidence that her (the PI) original hypothesis wasn’t correct. I’d favor a similar approach if I get my own lab, and of course remain open to the possibility that pet hypothesis could very likely be wrong. However, any mooks in the lab trying to live off the fat of the land should get kicked to the curb without a degree, yes? I’d try to draw a strong distinction between the hard working trainee without a first-author pub, and the slouch.


  22. jmz4 Says:

    ^Typical conversation of PIs. You guys really *don’t* read anyone’s theses, do you?

    90% of people’s issues with letting someone graduate without a paper are addressed by the fact that a PhD candidate still has to put together a thesis, which is then published. And they are now searchable on Google scholar, so its not even like the data isn’t out there. There’s nothing magical about the journal submission process.

    I’d recommend finding a cohort of people a couple years ahead of you that you respect and admire in your field (people that are wherever you want to be in 5 years) and getting their CVs (if possible) and publication records off of Google Scholar. That led me to the conclusion that I need about a paper every 2 years in an IF 10(uggh, I know, I know) or better if I want to land the PI position I want. That same cohort will be useful in 3-5 years when they’re up for Tenure and I’ve got my lab set up.


  23. Established PI Says:

    Our Ph.D. programs do not require first-author pubs as a condition for graduation, but, to me, seeing a manuscript all the way through from inception to acceptance is an essential component of training. I have had one or two cases where a student left before the paper was finally accepted but they always participated in the revision – in one case, coming back to do a reviewer’s experiment (he was still nearby). Students learn a tremendous amount from the process – constructing a logical argument, assembling sound evidence, expository writing – that is applicable to many fields besides bench science. Dealing with reviews, good or bad, is also good training for plenty of real-world experiences outside the lab.


  24. drugmonkey Says:

    EPI- I agree. I just don’t think it a useful obligation for the PhD.


  25. EPJ Says:

    eeke, that privilege happens with females too, so it is not gender-related only. It is a bias though, that when it is obvious it has consequences.


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    90% of people’s issues with letting someone graduate without a paper are addressed by the fact that a PhD candidate still has to put together a thesis, which is then published. And they are now searchable on Google scholar, so its not even like the data isn’t out there. There’s nothing magical about the journal submission process.

    Not at all. The “issues” with a paper as a criterion lies, as described by comments above, in surmounting the publication process. Putting together a credible manuscript that tells a story appropriate for a given audience/journal. Dealing with review, responding with additional data if necessary, etc. Facing the real world of criticism, not just the thesis committee. I agree these are good things, I just don’t think they are a necessary criterion for the award of a PhD. I also think that making this a hard and fast rule tends to support labor exploitation over genuine training for the benefit of the candidate.

    On the other side, I favor a monolithic thesis approach and I don’t care one whit that it is published and indexed on Google scholar. The point is not to generate data suitable for a manuscript. The point is to demonstrate that one has learned to do science, as evaluated by the committee. They are the ones to tell the rest of the world that this particular person is worthy of a PhD.


  27. Psyc Girl Says:

    I think this is absolutely correct and great and plans are fabulous. But this is only 50% of the plan to me… the rest of it has to come from the student/trainee/postdoc who has to want publications and be willing to put in their own word. I can make the plans but… you can lead a horse to publications but…..


  28. jmz4 Says:

    “Not at all. The “issues” with a paper as a criterion lies, as described by comments above, in surmounting the publication process. Putting together a credible manuscript that tells a story appropriate for a given audience/journal. Dealing with review, responding with additional data if necessary, etc.”

    -If you intend to pursue your career as an academic, or a venue where you have to defend your results from others, these are valuable skills. They are probably valuable skills in any number of endeavors. It seems to me, however these are not critical to doing science in the strictest sense. As such I think you are right they shouldn’t be a necessary part of the requirements for a PhD.

    “Facing the real world of criticism, not just the thesis committee.”
    -I fail to see why peer review should be more rigorous or valuable than the thesis committee evaluations (again, not in a careerism sense). The committee should know your work far more intimately, is exposed to it several times, and is (theoretically at least) involved in the planning and execution. Their feedback should be much more instructive in how to properly do science than peer review at a journal.

    ” I favor a monolithic thesis approach and I don’t care one whit that it is published and indexed on Google scholar.”
    -I think it is important that NIH-funded research gets put out there, at least. The taxpayer paid for it, it should be available in some form.

    But yeah, you have a problem with that on the “only papers count” end too. I put every last scrap of data into my thesis, cause I saw it as an opportunity to gather all the bits and bobs and try to make sense of them. However, I know a bunch of people that just slapped three papers together, wrote an intro and discussion and called it a day. Some of them ended up with multiple papers worth of data that haven’t seen the light of day because they weren’t complete enough to put in manuscript form at the time.

    @Psyc Girl and others

    Do you really often come across trainees that have no interest in publishing? I’ve heard of these mythical creatures, but most of the people I know are constantly foisting manuscripts on their bosses to submit.


  29. JL Says:

    @jmz4, I like your idea of looking ahead to estimate what’s needed or expected. However, don’t forget the “inflation”. Expectations increase rapidly. What people “got away”. with 5 years ago will not necessarily be enough now. The further ahead you look, the more obvious this difference. I have received post-doc applications with CVs that look very similar to what the CV of several BSDs looked like when they were tenured. Similarly, we have it easier than the younger ones.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    jmz4- there are certainly plenty of trainees that do not deluge their PI with submittable manuscript drafts. I assume this is not because of “no interest”, but rather arises from many places including a lack of urgency, dynamics of immediate tasks vs timing-optional tasks, inexperience with the process, laziness, etc. The goal of the mentor should be to try to help overcome whatever is holding up the process. Ultimately, as mentioned above, a PI cannot force the trainee to drink the water.


  31. drugmonkey Says:

    -I think it is important that NIH-funded research gets put out there, at least. The taxpayer paid for it, it should be available in some form.

    So do I. I just don’t think this is the responsibility of the grad student to the extent that award of the PhD is made contingent on publishing. Doctoral training should not be so…transactional. IMO.


  32. EPJ Says:


    I think publication in journals should be part of the training for PhD (or MS, when applicable) and it is different from Thesis writing and final presentation/defense.

    And that whole system reflects the actual training and the environment where it took place. So that having papers written and accepted as requirements for graduation may not apply to everyone’s situation, because it will depend on the type of projects, maybe even the resources available, the advisor, the committee, and the journal personnel and system.

    Then you have what Jh Badger mentions, that funding for the PI depends on the publication metric, and that in the past important finding were published by the students and no PI. Again, it also depends on the case and the funding organization of the time. Otherwise it becomes a problem for everyone involved.


  33. EPJ Says:

    Add to that the 1st author condition as indication of major contribution, but the question would be what has been contributed to get that position (looks, what type of work, correct interpretation of the subject, other circumstances?)

    And all that applies to postdocs and junior scientists too. Add to that the irritating aspects of political philosophy into the whole mix, apparently is also a condition for success.

    So that the influence really ends up being from outside, where the money is available, and that type of power.

    Sometimes one wonders what would happen to the field of science and its applications if the restrictions were rather in behavior and accountability and access to science resources were not limited by the standards of today. Maybe is an Utopia, maybe not?


  34. David Says:

    “Do you really often come across trainees that have no interest in publishing?”

    In engineering it is somewhat common. A decent number of engineering grad students know before they start grad school that they are leaving academia. There are lots of industry jobs that require an MS or PhD. Publications help when the job post calls for “good communication skills” but are otherwise not really an asset. When you have a job lined up a year before graduation, the motivation to write a journal paper goes right out the window.


  35. Michael H Says:

    I spent a lot of time during my UG, GS, and PD time working to get the students I was mentoring first author publications. Often times I found that they were VERY willing to work for me to write their part, read the papers I sent them for theory, and meet with the PI to give progress reports.

    My UG mentor was amazing for mentoring UG students through first author publications, particularly when these UG were URM and/or female.

    However, my GS mentor was less than helpful with these UG students. I had to get my collaborators within the department get a bit assertive to make sure that these papers were published.


  36. Artnscience Says:

    I’m a Phd program director in the biomedical sciences – we require our PhD students to have an accepted (or published) first-author research paper before graduation. As others have noted, publication is critical for their careers, thus learning how to write papers and publish is an important part of our training program in addition to the research. Biomedical sciences is not an area where publishing 1 paper in 5 years is too much to expect! Students through their program director can apply to the graduate school for a waiver of the first-author paper requirement and this is readily granted (for example, if a submitted paper’s review is taking too long). However we prefer having the requirement because students and their faculty mentors need to clearly understand – a student who does not publish any of their research is not a successful student at all.


  37. drugmonkey Says:

    Sure thing, factory foreman.


  38. JL Says:

    Artnscience, I don’t understand something in your logic. If “a student who does not publish any of their research is not a successful student at all”, how come you are willing to grant waivers? Are you saying that you have no problem with students not being successful at all? Or are you willing to let them fail if they ask for it? My guess is that this is not the case, and instead that you recognize that your statement about publication and success is not true every single time.
    Either publication is 100% necessary for success and therefore it has to be a requirement, or is not. If it is not, then it can still be encouraged, but should not require a waiver. I think in your push, you made the case for DMs standing.


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    Exactly, JL.

    I do like the implication that it is there to place expectations *on the PI*. But it cannot be permitted to be turned, as it so often is, into a tool of the labor exploitation scheme.


  40. UCProf Says:

    Artnscience, what do you do when you have a student start off on a great project, everything works perfectly, and her first author paper is in print the middle of her second year?

    Since that’s your criteria and she satisfied it, shouldn’t she be done with her PhD?


  41. Shukaronin Says:

    As a current 5th year graduate student I support the approach of encouraging but not requiring a first author manuscript for graduation. The process can be a valuable learning experience, but hardly seems a necessary one. The time required to get a submission to accepted stage is nothing to brush off either. Two of my first author papers were submitted back in May and it took 6-7 months to get to “accepted” for them. No rejections, just revision cycles. For a graduate student needing that first author manuscript to graduate that is an eternity. All that I really learned from the process is that some reviewers really like to have their papers cited and discussed….

    I don’t plan to continue in academia, this process through graduate school has indicated to me that the priorities are not quite what they should be. I prefer to work as more of a team player but that doesn’t help my graduation efforts. The contributions I made to help other’s projects in lab, and the collaborations I set up with other laboratories, helped 5 additional manuscripts be published. However, none of that matters to my PI or my committee in terms of graduation – it only mattered to them and the program when I got my first-authors accepted.

    I’m lucky that they were accepted in time, but I work in a slow field and some of my fellow classmates may not be as lucky. Not sure how that diminishes the work they’ve done so far just because they weren’t able to get accepted in the first submission.


  42. drugmonkey Says:

    Exactly. We just had a paper accepted within a year of original submission and that was very fast for us. Could have easily been 6-9 more months just in the normal process of trying to get it accepted somewhere. Multiply this by the three first author paper demands I sometimes hear mentioned and no wonder grad school is taking well over 6 years as a median.

    It makes no sense to me to hold the PhD confirmation hostage to the publication process as we now know it.


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