Is it 8 pieces of advice? or just 1- PUBLISH!!!!

August 16, 2019

A career column in Nature by one Bela Z. Schmidt ponders his path in science and why he did not achieve a tenure track position. He presents this as a self-review colored heavily by interviews with “50 PIs” and concludes that there are eight factors that matter: Accept your data, Own your project, View yourself in your desired role, Ward off despair, Maximize your time, Outline your goals, Trust your intuition and Finish.

Before I get into this, I will remind you that there is a heavy dose of chance and fortune that dictates one’s career path in academic science. There are factors outside of your control, and factors that you don’t really see how important they are until it is far too late. But there are also factors that are within your control and this piece purports to address those, by way of these eight factors and related advice. Personally I tend to address this conundrum by the old saw about Fortune favoring the prepared, usually attributed to Louis Pasteur.

Yes, the good and bad luck can be career changing. Despite what we would prefer, success in academic science is not some sort of dispassionate, detached meritocracy of how deserving anyone is based on how much, or what, they have accomplished.


This particular columnist reveals that he started applying for tenure track jobs after 12 years spent in “several” postdoctoral positions. This work had resulted in 12 peer reviewed publications of which 5 were first-author. Two chapters and 10 “published meeting abstracts” were also mentioned- this is an area where I am uncertain about meaning since some fields view these more highly. Nevertheless, the career search outcome gives us a clue. Over three years 57 academic applications produced 4 interviews (some phone), and 22 biotech/pharm and 25 government agency agency jobs produced no interviews.

From my perspective, five first author papers in 12 years of post-doc training is not enough, unless they are Cell papers.

Reading through the eight pieces of advice, we can distill a similar conclusion. Under Finish, Schmidt reiterates the maxim that finished is better than perfect. This dovetails with his comment under Accept your data that he was a “meticulous experimenter” and spent too much time looking for alternative explanations. It also harmonizes with advice under Maximize your time, which emphasizes the passage of time and being productive and Own your project where he laments not following his nose on some promising preliminary results and suggests it would have made a “promising publication”.

You have to produce. It isn’t just the prepared mind that Fortune favors. It is the prepared CV, the prepared resume and the prepared recommendations from peer scientists that Fortune favors. And if anything is under the approximate control of the postdoctoral scientist, or should be, it is scientific productivity. By this point, you should have read hundreds if not thousands of papers in your fields of study. You should have a very good sense of what is needed to support publication in various venues. You should have enough experimental chops to know how to get to a publication. If you feel shaky on exactly how to do this when fresh out of graduate school, and most are, the whole point of the initial postdoctoral years is to learn this part of the career.

Sure, some PIs are going to be a hurdle instead of an accelerator to your need to produce peer reviewed scientific publications. Fields differ in expectations along the path of frequency over depth/breadth and on journal reputation or metrics like the JIF. Yes. Your job as a post-PhD scientist is to learn how to navigate these hazards and produce published work. That’s the gig.

You have to be able to close.

I want to return here to the second theme in the eight pieces of advice because it gets into very touchy territory. This also echoes something that has been drifting about on sciTwitter lately under the usual hot button topic of how much you should be working and not complaining about it when you are a trainee. The optimism of giving eight pieces of advice on how to be a PI (and writing a blog focused on academic science careers for well over a decade, let’s face it) has a bit of an assumption that most people with PhDs deserve to be Principal Investigators running their own show. In a tenure track position or similar supervisory role within a government institute/agency or in private biotech or pharmaceutical industries. Or maybe if the term “deserve” is too loaded, perhaps we may say that they would be successful, if only given the chance.

Under View yourself in your desired role, Schmidt quotes one of his interviewees saying “I have always been a PI — in somebody else’s lab.” This works together with Outline your goals in the sense of having a plan to become a PI. But…what if you don’t view yourself as a PI or have any specific things that you want to do in science that require you to be a PI? I was a career doofus for many years and it hurt me. But I knew since early in graduate school that the kinds of questions I wanted to answer required me to direct the scientific effort of others. Explicitly. I knew that I was not going to be happy just with the data I could generate with my own two hands. This must inevitably have pushed me to pay a little bit of attention to the hows and whys of the career as I went forward. No matter how dim the prospects of independence looked at any point in my training. In Ward off despair Schmidt touches heavily on the self-confidence to believe in your science as an echo of themes in Own your project and in Trust your intuition. Just bull ahead, these comments say, you do you and everything will be fine. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t let doubt get in your way- take risks on half-baked scientific ideas! (N.b., I’ve been letting some nutty ideas that fall far short of “half-baked” take up far too much time and effort in the lab lately- It’s fun, dammit.)

My hesitation with this set of themes as mentoring advice is that it sounds a lot more like selection criteria than it does like general advice. (This is somewhat related to advice to not let negative reviews of your work prevent you from resubmitting the paper, revising and resubmitting the grant or whatever else it takes to persevere.) And this is uncomfortable.

Science is replete with people who have personal stories of someone telling them they weren’t cut out for this stuff and yet here they are as a seasoned PI with a zillion citations of their published work to their credit. Many of us know people who we think should have been similarly accomplished, but they just fell off the path at some point. And many of us may have our little ideas about who, or what kind of person, is cut out for this business. Some of us are dumb enough to bray it about in public or tell specific people they don’t have what it takes. We’re often wrong, see first sentence of the paragraph. We are often wrong because of the limitations of our own experiences. We are often wrong because of our implicit or explicit biases. This is why the smarter people realize their predictions about who is suited to be a PI are not very strong ones and keep it to themselves. Or at least keep it to a limited conversation with their partner or closest peers.

Or blog it. 🙂

I’m pretty clear that I think that in order to set yourself up the best to be a PI one day, or to run a group in the private sector, you have to be able to produce peer-reviewed papers of a type and at a rate that is within the expectations for your subfield and desired future job type, while you are a postdoc. This productivity can be by various routes, and it is. Some of you are in well-oiled machine labs where the pubs are going to come almost despite you. Others will be in places where it is hard slogging with the whole shebang entirely on your shoulders. Still others will have to fight a zero-sum cage match for first author slots in Glam articles. I get that circumstances vary. But the advantages of a record of publication productivity do not vary that much.

Postdocs are expected to produce papers. Job applicants for professor gigs or for independent positions in government science (and even in industry) are expected to have produced papers…even if this isn’t a major job expectation going forward!

Obviously we can’t know exactly what jobs Schmidt applied for in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. And we don’t know how well his skills fit those jobs. But I will make the leap of assuming that at least part of the issue leading to zero interviews in that sector was his lean publication output.

Another personal belief is that someone hiring you is concerned that you were a success in whatever you were doing before. It doesn’t matter how related or unrelated it may be to the job opportunity, they can’t help but be biased to think that if there is something unproductive about your past, maybe it is because you were bad at your job and you will be bad at this new job. And, conversely, if you were a success in a prior job, you are probably going to be a success in your next job. And when an academic postdoc has been at it 12-15 years across multiple labs, one starts to assume it is him and not the vagaries of Fortune.

Which cycles us right back to the discussion of intrinsic traits versus following the right career advice. As I said, many of this Op-Ed’s eight pieces of advice come back to point at publication record. The other ones boil down to a sort of career personality type.

Can you change your own behavior because you realize it is rapidly closing off your future possibilities? I have to be honest, I got one big boot in my career behind at an earlier stage and it changed my behavior significantly. But I still could be a lot more productive when it comes to papers coming out of my laboratory. I know this. And it doesn’t seem to help me get better.

Can you, as a mentor, train your postdocs to alter their behavior? We’ve seen how poorly it goes over to write op-eds complaining about empty science labs on the weekend. We’ve seen various pile-ons when any poor PI on twitter dares suggest maybe postdocs should work harder. We realize implicitly that every postdoc on twitter is amazingly hard working and is only held back by that terrible mentor they have who won’t return nearly finished paper drafts to them in a timely fashion. But….mentors gonna mentor. And it is very difficult to escape the bias that what we believe worked for us should work for our trainees. So we tell them that they gotta produce.

Is it less terrible to tell people that, in your best estimation, they are not cut out for an eventual position as an independent scientist? Many, many postdocs who do produce a lot of scientific papers will not be fortunate enough to land their dream job as an independent lab head. Is it a fool’s errand, or worse a tool of exploitation, to encourage postdocs to produce more and more papers? Is it more effective to observe that if you don’t feel like a PI temporarily shackled to your PI’s lab, or if you don’t have a driving need to get data from 7 (+/-2) people on your desk every week, or if you don’t have a half-dozen side project cooking at all times…that you aren’t he right person for this racket?

I have questions.

8 Responses to “Is it 8 pieces of advice? or just 1- PUBLISH!!!!”

  1. Microscientist Says:

    Regardless of how many publications this person had, my red flag went off at 12 years as a post-doc. At my institution, which doesn’t even have a PhD program, that would be a giant indicator of someone who would likely fail at the multi-tasking required to be a PI/assistant professor. There would have to be a really compelling narrative at to why they were a post-doc for so long, which most search committees won’t bother to investigate, since they have several hundred other applications to choose from.


  2. bacillus Says:

    Agree with @microscientist, and further question the morality of stringing people along for so long in post-doc purgatory before showing them the door. I work in a govt lab, and we hire research associates (post-docs by any other name). They have a 2 year probationary period, then an additional 3 years post-probation. At this stage we need to justify promoting them to a continuing position (tenure) or let them go. This at least allows the latter to relaunch their careers and still build up a decent pension pot. May be time for academia to consider a similar winnowing tactic sooner rather than later as in the case of the subject of this post.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    Do recall that people use “postdoc” for a broad range of employment realities, so I wouldn’t want to assume too much beyond the person’s apparent desire for a tenure track job. 12 years before trying for a position like this does seem like a long time but it also seems very brutal to use that as a factor, absent other more direct indicators such as the publication record. Sometimes stuff happens, y’know. In this case the duration as a postdoc does dovetail with the publication record to question whether this person has the right stuff. IMO.


  4. Colin Says:

    I agree with Prof Monkey here. I think it is brutal and unfair to judge somebody simply because they have been a postdoc for a long time. I know many people have the attitude that a postdoc is a trainee position and that postdocs are doing ‘supervised research’. This might have been the reality a few decades ago, and it is true for a lot of postdocs now, but for a very large fraction of people in postdoc positions, this simply is not the reality. Many of them are doing normal research activities and are doing their own independent research. What matters should be how productive somebody has been during their time as a postdoc and not simply how long it has been. If somebody has been a postdoc for 12 years and has been highly productive during this time, they should not be punished.

    …of course the author of the article was not highly productive it seems.


  5. qaz Says:

    As a fascinating point, my university has told us that they are no longer allowing the “research assistant professor” position so there is no path to a better title for a super-postdoc. The only available option is to make them a real non-tenure-track professor, with all the rights and responsibilities of such. Since non-tenure-track professors are, by definition, annually reappointed, a super-postdoc who wants the title bump but either doesn’t want or isn’t ready for a real professorship position (teaching, must get R01s or die, must become independent, etc) puts themselves into a dangerous situation that could be worse than remaining as a postdoc. We just had a long (and contentious) argument in a faculty meeting about what to do with the staff-scientist people who want to build careers within empires.

    So I agree with DM that we should be careful of titles and try to judge on record.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    And I’ve seen institutions go round and round and back and forth on titles, permissions, house-cleanings of the “wrong sort of person” and all the while various individuals fight their way into a personal exception to whatever the current rules seem to be. which is why my advice to people in these situations always keep pressing and asking even if the official rules seem to prevent what they want to do.


  7. Colin Says:

    By the way, there is one more point I just thought about when it comes to judging somebody based on their number of years as postdoc. This is usually done without consideration of their actual age. I finished my PhD and started my first postdoc at the age of 26, and I know people who have done it at 25. Many other people are much older when they finish, and ages of 35 or more are quite normal where I am. This is not a problem I think, and it is good older people are able to get into academia, but completely disregarding actual age and only looking at ‘academic age’ is really unfair to people who finish early. A 25 year old and a 35 year old will have very different priorities in life and very different understandings of how things operate.


  8. bacillus Says:

    Sorry for not rejoining the conversation earlier, but I’ve been otherwise disposed. Let me qualify based on the responses of others above. If a “post-doc” is a recognized career path by an employer, and comes with an ascending salary scale, health and pension benefits etc, befitting of a professional and productive scientist, then fair play to the incumbent for choosing this avenue of employment. However, I’ve met too many, usually foreign, post docs of long standing who have no such benefits who are treated as mere lab fodder kept around on relatively poor salaries for as long as they are useful to their PI. They are often cut adrift in their 40’s with no accrued benefits and have to begin their careers again from scratch. These are the people to whom I was referring in my initial post, and it is for shame that we belong to a profession that essentially condones this behavior. If you know that someone working for you is not a keeper, then best release them asap.


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