Don’t get too big for your britches, jr faculty: trainee edition

April 10, 2018

As you know I am not a super big fan of NIH grant review sentiments which boil down to “tut, tut, Dr. Junior Faculty, let’s not get too big for your britches. Try this small starter award and see how you do with that before you get to play with the big kids.”

I believe things like size of grant and number of grants (and relatedly, overall total direct costs) should be taken on a case by case basis. And I believe that modern “junior” faculty are pretty old, phenomenally broadly experienced and generally pretty capable compared to junior faculty minted in, say, the early to mid eighties.

The question of the day, however, has more to do with lab size and specifically to do with the number of academic trainees.

Is there a limit to the number of grad students, postdocs or grad students plus postdocs that most junior faculty should be training?

My gut take is “heck yes”. I don’t know that I’ve ever had to act up this. I can’t recall a time when I ever had to judge a R-mechanism or F-mechanism where the PI or supervisor (respectively) was seemingly overburdened with trainees. But my gut says that this is possible. There would be times where I might raise an eyebrow about how many concurrent trainees a junior (or senior, but that’s another argument) PI might be proposing to have. Whether that be due to taking a look at the “training environment” for a F32/F31 application or in looking at relative commitment levels for a new Rproposal there are seemingly times that this might come up. Conceivably.

My gut feeling on this is guided by my own experience which, as we know, is wildly out of touch with y’all.

We have had one or two conversations about what people think of as a small, medium or large lab. My takeaway from these is that people think a 6-7 person lab is average, medium, normal and basically expected value.

To me this is “on the larger side”.

I have run anywhere from 0-4 concurrent academic trainees and when I am at 4 postdocs I definitely feel a bit stretched.

I have been doing this gig for some time now. When I was a wee newbie PI I thought that two concurrent trainees was pretty much good. Three was not something that I thought was sustainable.

Whatcha think, Dear Reader?

Can most junior PIs handle 5 or more concurrent academic trainees? Should they just take as many as possible?

*I solemnly swear this is not a troll to further complain about the training of too many PhDs.

24 Responses to “Don’t get too big for your britches, jr faculty: trainee edition”

  1. mclneuro Says:

    Some folks have grad students who have significant teaching responsibilities making them more like half-students for a year, if not more, of their training.
    Other disciplines have grad students are spending years getting up to speed with clinical norms in diagnosis, imaging, watching crystals form or other forms of widget making.
    Not sure we can make a blanket statement.
    Your friend,
    PS I’ve heard your twitter screed for too long to be deterred by a simple *disclaimer that you aren’t sekretly trolling me.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Ok so TA responsibility subtracts from the amount of mentoring effort? Fine, then answer by full-time equivalents. How many is too many for a junior PI, or does it not matter?


  3. Joe Says:

    What if the PI doesn’t get tenure? What if the PI doesn’t get funding? Students would have to change labs or the department would have to fund them. Post-docs are easier to move, but that is still disruptive. Better to limit trainees in the early years to three or four.


  4. Morgan Price Says:

    I doubt that a PI (at any level of experience) can mentor more than 5-6 graduate students effectively. On the other hand, in bigger labs, the grad students are actually mentored by postdocs, and maybe that’s just as effective. Is there empirical evidence that grad students in small labs fare better?


  5. JL Says:

    “Better to limit trainees in the early years to three or four.” Classic BSD prescribing what everyone must do, by pulling a number from where the sun don’t shine.

    By the time some people start faculty positions they have tons of experience mentoring and running labs. Others have no experience, or don’t care and make a mess. In my experience, it’s more important that trainees have exit options and a broader committee to help them in case the “mentor” can’t handle or will not handle.


  6. Bob Graybeard Says:

    6-7 people?? How do you get anything accomplished? I guess you don’t, so that is why you spend so much time on Snapchat and other websites exhorting the also rans and never weres of the world to greater heights of mediocrity.

    People are a resource, and like any resource they need to be expended to achieve greatness. But the question you posed was about how to allocate that resource and to whom. Obviously, the personnel should be steered to the Excellent labs, and I’m sorry but true Excellence requires experience. The kind of experience that allows you to answer the question: “How many people should I force to compete on the same project to maximize the chance that one of them succeeds?” The kind of experience that will guide you when you need to appropriately intimidate your departing postdoc into abandoning the research program they were planning to use to ride your coattails to success in their independent career. And the kind of experience that will help you make the difficult decision of which precious few of your trainees are actually worth investing your valuable and limited attention in, and which are cannon fodder best left to be ground up in the millstone of scientific progress. That is why the majority of trainees are best served going to established, and Excellent, labs.

    Now I recognize that we need to generate seed corn. But, the beauty of this system is it also winnows away the weak and the insufficiently dedicated. Those that emerge from this crucible are the next generation of Excellence, and we are not doing enough to support them. For example, if I hadn’t started my group with 10 lab members, I never would have been able to process the nearly 350 macaque brains required for my landmark first paper, “Quantitative distribution of monoaminergic neurons in the brains of aged macaques revealed using the Falck-Hillarp method I. The hindbrain.” That got me tenure! So I see it as my job to make sure the correct labs get the maximum resources. Rest assured, I am quite confident in the ability of my peer group to oversee this process. To know this is true, one only needs to look at the fact that those we reject for funding inevitably fail.

    So my answer to your question regarding how many people is the “right” number for a young lab is if they are Excellent, then as many as possible. If not, then zero.


  7. Ben Stein Says:

    I try to be hand’s-on mentor, and I am stretched mentoring 4 PhD students and supervising a research associate. The students started in different years, so there is a gradient of increasing independence with training and experience. This is pre-tenure, so my teaching and service responsibilities are not too bad, but I do not understand how other people do it + write several grants/ papers per year.

    Postdocs could help with some of the day-to-day question answering (can you look at the microscope?), but they would need to get trained in the same way as a PhD student and would not help too much with essential writing stuff.


  8. Ola Says:

    I don’t think this is any different for junior vs. senior, other than the young-uns usually have leftover startup funds to play with, so can afford to take on a few more people without worrying about how to pay them.

    But, frankly I don’t know how anyone with more than 3 trainees gets any sleep or does any other work aside from mentoring? I’ve never had more than a 5 person lab (me, 2 PDF, 2 GS, 1 tech) and that felt big and exhausting at the time. Any more and it puts a lot more pressure on the PI to keep multiple grants funded. With a small lab you can be nimble, use no-cost-extensions and other tricks to keep the lab running in lean times. If a big factory lab hits hard times, people end up on the street. Plus there’s the whole too many mouths at the trough thing, which in no small part is caused by too many trainees.

    I say fuck it, if the youngs wanna take more people on, let them die on that beach. The deeper problem is too many trainees in total, but no reason to single out anyone just because of a perception that they’re out of their depth.


  9. Grumpy Says:

    Im an assistant prof and have about 10 trainees in my lab. Similar to the size of groups I had in industry. I think it’s a manageable number but wouldn’t go much higher.

    One glaring difference from industry: if I went on parental leave or had to take time off for medical reasons or something, my group would have a hard time staying productive. In industry the level of experience was higher so teams could move on quickly when the boss left.


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    I never thought about this, very interesting question. My lab might survive for 6 mo without me. Probably. I think.


  11. LK Says:

    I’m at the assistant/assoc prof transition (yay tenure!) and have a teaching load of ~3 contact hours/week one semester, and ~5.5 contact hours/week in another semester. I currently have 5 GS. I’m swamped and can barely keep my head above water. Given teaching expectations, I’m not sure anything more than 3 GS + 1 postdoc is sustainable.


  12. lk Says:

    interesting. if you look at many lab websites, the size is > the arbitrarily selected 5-6 people max at many universities.

    the flip side is i think that there are people who don’t think you can’t accomplish enough without having a lab size of ~>10! I guess they aren’t commenting here.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    Sorry lk? Are you saying some Universities have formal rules on lab size? And these are flouted?


  14. Cytokine Says:

    I get frustrated by the brand new PI looking for a post-doc. The purpose of the post-doc is for scientists to establish themselves and build a body of work that they can take with them to build a lab. New PIs don’t have the luxury or scientific capacity of a post-doc leaving with a research idea from that lab. In my experience, post-docs from new PIs who are given an opportunity to start their own lab (which is quite rare) are either directly competing with the parent lab or are entering a brand new scientific area where they’re over-reliant on their start-up for preliminary data. Post-docs from mega-labs are essentially acting as independent PIs under an umbrella PI, which is why the have a higher tendency to start successful, independent labs. I’m also extremely frustrated by the occasional email that states “looking for a post-doc or a technician”. You either want one or the other, they’re not the same. I would be ecstatic if the NIH had a standing rule that they would not support post-docs on R/U/P/DP grants unless the PI has had their independent lab for at least 5 years.


  15. A Salty Scientist Says:

    How many PIs here have lab groups that are smaller than their graduate and/or postdoctoral mentors’ labs? I would guess a majority, perhaps even a strong one, with lab funding levels playing a larger role than personal preference.

    My grad lab had 10 PhD students plus a tech. The lab was supported by two R01s plus numerous training grants or fellowships that supported about half of the PhD students at any given time. IMO, these training grants provide strong incentives to take on additional graduate students over postdocs, while allowing the rich to stretch their grant dollars even further.


  16. AcademicLurker Says:

    @A Salty Scientist,

    My grad school lab had 2 grad students and 2 postdocs, while I did my postdoc in a BSD mega lab that fluctuated between 25-30 postdocs and grad students (mostly postdocs). Since starting my own group, it’s never been bigger than 4 trainees, not counting undergrads. I’m not sure I’d want it to be much bigger than that.


  17. lk Says:

    sorry I wasn’t more clear @drugmonkey. I meant the 5-6 size was “arbitrarily selected” from the discussion in the comments


  18. elsie Says:

    At my R1 institution, faculty supervising fewer than 4 grad students are assigned additional teaching load. Postdocs are not counted. There is leeway, for example if a student graduates and a new one has not yet joined– but if the number of trainees dips for more than a couple of semesters then the faculty member is expected to take on an additional class.


  19. lurkette Says:

    “I get frustrated by the brand new PI looking for a post-doc… New PIs don’t have the luxury or scientific capacity of a post-doc leaving with a research idea from that lab.”

    Besides being vaguely insulting this is simply not true for a number of new PIs. What we do not have is the luxury to wait (on a submit package at 5 years tenure clock) until our grad students spend a year rotating, another year taking classes and TAing, and another year to reach independence and excellence in research, let alone publish. For me it would be madness to not hire as many strong PDs as I can afford. I am 3.75 years in, well funded with 4 PDs doing diverse research, one of whom is now on the job market with a nice chunk of scientific niche that I am thrilled to protect for him/her. And this is certainly not unique. Attitudes like Cytokine’s just feed the misguided notion that is is a bad idea in general to PD in a young lab.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    At my R1 institution, faculty supervising fewer than 4 grad students are assigned additional teaching load. Postdocs are not counted. There is leeway, for example if a student graduates and a new one has not yet joined– but if the number of trainees dips for more than a couple of semesters then the faculty member is expected to take on an additional class.

    I cannot imagine why we have this huge problem of far too many PhDs being produced year in, year out.


  21. A Salty Scientist Says:

    I’m guessing that tuition $ > indirects on (postdoc salary/benefits – grad stipend/benefits).


  22. Eli Rabett Says:

    The reach of a single mentor is 3 to 4. You can multiply that by the number of permadocs and techs.


  23. Arlenna Says:

    I dunno, I have 10 full time people in my lab (3 grad students, 1 tech, 6 postdocs) and about a bazillion undergrads (12 actually) and I feel like it’s about right. The only thing that I worry about is how to make sure everybody stays paid. We have daily morning huddle meetings as a team, and long-form lab meeting once a week, and that seems to work for us. Maybe they’d say differently, but it feels like it’s working to me.


  24. Draino Says:

    “Sponsor has a total of 4 postdocs, so it’s unclear that the time is available to mentor all 4 well.”

    -quoted from reviewer comments to a postdoc fellowship for one of my trainees.

    Next time I will make sure to have fewer postdocs on paper. For instance, one of the 4 was a graduate student who was promoted for a couple of months before moving to do a complete postdoc in another lab. I should not have counted that person.


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