PI seeks postdoc

March 23, 2018

Every PI wants only the most brilliant, creative and motivated trainees that will put in insane levels of effort to advance the lab agenda.

We know this because it is how they write their postdoc solicitation blurbs.

This is not what is consistently available.

I know this because a consistent backchannel theme of my dubious life online as science careers nerd features PIs complaining about their trainees.

My usual response is to point out that they became PI due to being much better than average. So of course most of their trainees aren’t going to be as good as they are*.



17 Responses to “PI seeks postdoc”

  1. baltogirl Says:

    I agree. My experience is that 15% are great (here is the pool of future PIs), 70% are good, and 15% need to be let go (usually after a year of non-productivity with no positive trend- my criterion here is, would this salary be better spent on a 9-5 technician?).


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    I tend to find everyone is a mixture of talents. Can’t think of any of my staff over the years that were all bad. Everyone has at least one strength. And I am well aware that I had, and have, weaknesses in my job performance.


  3. zb Says:

    Right — but then why should the 70% be post docs? Which is supposed to be a training position?


  4. Morgan Price Says:

    “Which is supposed to be a training position?” — Call me cynical but I’m surprised that so many people still believe that.



  5. baltogirl Says:

    In my experience nearly every postdoc who leaves my lab finds a job in science. It may not be as a PI (in fact few become PIs) – but everyone is working in science, somehow. Some are at companies, some in private institutes, some in government institutes, some as teachers, some in tech transfer. Many are still in academic research but in stable non-PI positions (other countries have better paths to this).
    And I may be naive but I believe that the training experience in my lab (which includes training in writing and speaking/presentation) DID help most of them.


  6. DNAman Says:

    Off topic, but posting this here because I think it is a really interesting case. It’s about the UCSD vs USC Alzheimer’s Center moving/theft. I’m not connected to this in anyway, it’s not really my field. I’m just fascinated. So the following is just from what I read. Please correct me if you have inside information.

    Basic summary:

    Prof Leno Thal established an Alzheimer’s Research Center at UCSD in the 1990’s and built it into one of the leading research center’s in the field. In 2007, he died suddenly when a small plane he was piloting crashed. UCSD went out and hired a new director to take over the Center, Prof Paul Aisen previously at Georgetown.

    By 2015, Aisen was still directing the center with about $75 million in annual grant money. ($25 million from NIH and another $50 million from outside sources.) Most of the money got farmed out to about 100 different clinical trial sites, but still a big enough chunk stayed at UCSD to employ a staff of about 80 people.

    Here’s the twist:

    In 2015, Aisen is not happy for whatever reason and negotiates with USC to “move” the entire center to USC. I put “move” in quotes, because the center was housed in rented office space in La Jolla adjacent to the UCSD campus. Aisen/USC’s plan was to keep the center in the same rented La Jolla location and just change its affiliation to USC. The new UCS Alzheimer’s research Center would be 100 miles from the USC Medical School and across the street from UCSD.

    The grant money would funnel through USC instead of UCSD, the staff would suddenly be USC employees instead of UCSD employees. Aisen would get a $100,000 pay raise (taken from the Alzheimer’s grants).

    Once Aisen announced the move, the whole thing got ugly. The heart of the operation was all software/data. The people moving to USC copied the software/data and moved it onto portable hard drives/Amazon cloud. UCSD named a new director of the center and the lawsuits began.

    Here’s a brief filed by UCSD with the Ninth Circuit that has some of the facts laid out from UCSD’s perspective https://www.docdroid.net/8W26wI1/aisenbrief.pdf

    So, who is right?


  7. Philapodia Says:

    Universities are the recipient of grants and own any IP associated with it, not the PI. Aisen has no right to negotiate moving the center because it wasn’t “his”. Taking data as was done would be considered theft by most universities unless they gave their blessing to take it beforehand.


  8. qaz Says:

    Coming back to the postdoc point, if everyone is a mixture of talents, doesn’t it make sense to expect that it’s not a bell curve of talent that you (as PI) are on the extreme end of (under the survival of the fittest hypothesis*) but rather that you (as PI) learned how to turn your talents to success? So there should be lots of postdocs who can turn their talents to success?
    * Which I’m not really sure fits any data on who gets to be PI, but that’s a different issue.

    The hypothesis built into this post is incompatible with the overproduction of PhDs and overproduction of postdocs hypothesis. Either there are too many qualified and talented postdocs and not enough faculty jobs (which would predict that there are lots of brilliant, creative, and motivated postdocs who are on the waiting-list for a PI job, and thus available to be recruited to the lab) or there are too few qualified and talented postdocs (which would predict that the pipeline is just fine).

    My observations are more compatible with the broader perspective that everyone can find their talents and their own ways to success. So it’s less about finding a creative, talented, and motivated postdoc, and more about finding one who is a good fit for my lab and what I can teach them. I just don’t think it’s so one-dimensional.

    PS. Of course PI’s complain about their trainees. Parents complain about their kids. I know for a fact that my PIs complained about me. But (like my parents) they’re proud of me. And I’m proud of my kids and trainees. Complaining about kids is part of parenting.


  9. Philapodia Says:

    Most PIs want post-docs for selfish reasons, even if we say we don’t. We hire them because we want them to help push forward our ideas, get data that will get us grants so we can pay some or all of our salaries, get fellowships so we can afford to buy more post-docs, and write cool papers that will help our prestige and eventually attract even better post-docs. Training the post-doc is not the PIs primary priority, because that’s not what our funding agents are paying for. They want results, and how the position affects the post-doc’s career is really irrelevant. We may have to give lip service to some sort of mentoring program, but has a grant ever been pulled because we didn’t follow that program? Not that I’ve heard. I think a lot of PIs hire post-docs in spite of their career goals, not because of them, because they’ll help the PI get where THEY want to go.

    Academia is really just a modern day implementation of the Medieval guild system, with apprentices (grad students), journeymen (post-docs), and Masters (PIs). We may invest on those few special post-docs (the 15%) who will carry our torch and move what we’re interested in forward (such as forging Rings of Power or Excalibur), but most post-docs (70%) are just there to make horseshoes and plowshares so we don’t have to deal with that boring stuff.


  10. qaz Says:

    Philapodia – most people I know want their students and postdocs to succeed and are deeply invested in their future success. I suppose some people have kids to help them work the farm, but most people I know hope their kids will go on to make them proud. I suppose, in a sense, this is a form of your selfish PI, but the PI’s goal is to be seen as a great maker of scientists.

    The medieval guild system was explicitly built on the hypothesis that apprentices graduated into journeypeople and journeypeople graduated into masters. The problem actually is that the system is very poorly set up for those people who don’t want to graduate into masters and really just want to spend their lives making horseshoes and plowshares and don’t want to be PIs and just want to do the science.

    R01s are not mentoring programs, so no R01 gets pulled because you didn’t mentor people on it. But F3x, Kxx, and T32 programs are training programs and they most definitely get pulled or not renewed if training outcomes are poor.


  11. Philapodia Says:

    Of course we want our students/PD’s to succeed in their careers, but we basically hire them to move forward our current agenda. If we consider a lab using Maslow’s Classic Hierarchy of Needs, funding and career stability for the PI can be considered a basic need whereas being a great maker of scientists can be considered a more esoteric need. You can’t make great new scientists without a stable platform to do it from. That’s my point, is that at some level there needs to be a certain amount of selfishness from the PI for them to be able to develop the critical resources that will allow them to support the next generation of scientists. Being somewhat selfish is OK, since without that you simply can’t enhance the prospects of the next generation.

    I agree that the system is poorly set up for the perpetual journeymen/journeywomen types. It does look like there is more of a push to come up with career development opportunities for those folks, but they seem to be at individual institutions rather than systemic from what I’ve seen.

    I was mostly thinking about R01/R21 and other non-training mech’s, which are the prime mechanisms that most labs go after. Training mechanisms are generally considered add-ons in labs that already have money, since a lab can run on an R01 (or R21 if you’re really stingy), but you can’t run a lab on F31/F32/T32’s. A lab without R01 level funding will have an extremely hard time getting one of these training grants.


  12. Kevin. Says:

    Most reasonable people train their postdocs and students to be better because then the work they do is better, more easily funded, and they are more productive.

    Yes, they may get so good after this training that they find better jobs and leave. Most of the postdocs that would come in after that, if they were ‘better’, would choose a lab that trains people well (e.g. and they get good jobs) then one who simply extracts labor from them, publishes papers, and then they disappear into the ether.


  13. Philapodia Says:


    The explicit version of your implicit statement would be:

    “Most reasonable people train their postdocs and students to be better because then the work they do (FOR US) is better, (WE are) more easily funded, and they are more productive (FOR US).”

    I’m not saying at all that we don’t care about our trainee’s careers or interests. Obviously helping our scientific spawn is a goal for most PIs. I’m trying to point out that the idea that the primary immediate goal of PIs for training grad students and PDs is to make great new scientists is simply a conceit to make ourselves feel better for hiring these young people as fairly cheap labor. Most PIs became scientists because we want to learn new things (rather than to train the next generation of scientists), and we need resources and man-power to help US with that due to all of our other responsibilities. Being able to train the next generation of scientists IS important, but is also secondary to our desire to learn new things and exploring our world unless you are a primarily teaching-focused faculty member. Most promotion and tenure committees at R1 institutions weigh scientific output and extramural funding much more than teaching (including mentoring). P&T committees also could care less about where your students go, and departments usually care if to provide data for training grants or if they are potential donors. It’s in PIs short-term interests to hire good labor and train them to be effective in their lab, but the long-term benefits of training tend to be more nebulous and feel-good. Not a bad thing at all, but I think not the focus of most of our careers.


  14. Luminiferous aether Says:

    Philapodia @11.10 am nailed it.


  15. WH Says:

    Well, many postdocs (and perhaps to a lesser extent, grad students) choose their positions based on the perceived success, novelty, and environment of the PI’s laboratory. So are PIs who complain about their trainees ultimately reflecting poorly upon themselves?


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    So are PIs who complain about their trainees ultimately reflecting poorly upon themselves?

    In a way. But this is just another way of saying that the distribution of PIs comes from the upper part of the trainee distribution and that competition for the very best of trainees at any point in time means a given PI is going to have (some) trainees that aren’t as good as they were.


  17. TL Says:

    Years ago, when I was a fresh post-doc, I spoke to a young and ambitious associate professor who probably fancied himself better than the other academics at the institute. He told me that, in his experience, students who stayed on as post-docs weren’t the best of the bunch and that truly exceptional people left academia.

    I neglected to ask him how terrible must be the people who stay and go on to become associate professors.


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