The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College (yes, that department) has announced a most unusual academic position that they are seeking to fill.

Huh? Well, let us click through and read the details.

The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College invites applications for a Faculty Fellow, a two-year residential postdoctoral appointment, that will convert automatically to a regular full-time tenure-track appointment as Assistant Professor. Faculty Fellows are part of a cohort of faculty committed to increasing diversity in their disciplines. We are interested in applicants whose research can connect to and/or bridge between any foci in our department including behavioral, cognitive, social and affective psychology and neuroscience. We are especially interested in candidates who have a demonstrated ability to contribute to Dartmouth’s diversity initiatives in STEM research, such as the Women in Science Program, E. E. Just STEM Scholars Program, and Academic Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE).

That’s about it. The rest is boilerplate with minimal details, including about the salary and resources being offered. So we have to assume “postdoctoral appointment” means the usual for a postdoc. Salary something along the lines of the NRSA scale and no individual resources such as a nice startup package or research space. Maybe there will be, but it is not on evidence in the job solicitation.

This is CLEARLY a DEI hire. An attempt to diversity a faculty that looks to my eye like it could use some diversification.

Instead of just hiring a person at the faculty level directly, they will be getting faculty level effort and behavior out of someone for the low, low price of a postdoc stipend. With a guarantee of “automatic” conversion which one, frankly, doubts will be iron clad.

This is so dismally emblematic of the institutional efforts to respond to the pressure to diversify their faculty.

Are any of you seeing similar proposals lauched at your University? What is the rationale here? What is the justification for this over just creating new faculty lines and hiring into them?

I can think of a couple of rationalescuses.

It is some sort of tenure clock manipulation. If they think, for whatever reason, that someone that will be able to contribute to “Dartmouth’s diversity initiatives in STEM research” will have a hard time making tenure on the usual schedule in their Department, this could be the reason for the plan. This would be an extra red flag warning to any applicant, of course. If the Department can’t get behind valuing these contributions as a substitute for their other expectations, and only see them as add-on effort that delays “real progress”, then this person will always be at odds with an unsupportive Department. Tenure is a risky proposition, no matter how long the decision is delayed.

It could be some sort of “we can get this approved quickly but oh how hard it is to get a new tenure line approved for this cycle” thing. Yeah, well that questions the commitment of the College and the “automatic” conversion. So surely this isn’t going to be raised.

A colleague from elsewhere indicated that something like this is being tried in their Department. The rationale is, from what I can tell, that scientist of color are reluctant to take on postdoctoral training (pretty sure I’ve seen data on that mentioned somewhere) and that this leak in the pipeline could be addressed by offering faculty positions earlier. Ok, I definitely buy that more security of a career would be helpful to keep promising younger scientists from bailing on the academic track before or during the expected postdoctoral interval. But. But, but but. Why not just hire straight into a faculty position? Course relief, service relief, etc, is already standard operating procedure. If a Department or University (or College) thinks this needs to be extended two or three years longer for these earlier-career hires, so be it.

This brings us to the longer arc of wage manipulation in the individual sense and in the industry sense.

If these Departments who are all really concerned about DEI and are launching various hiring initiatives were serious, they would have to be out there competing with each other for the existing pool of academic scientists in more or less the same position as their usual hires. As we know, there aren’t a lot of them, particularly when it comes to African-American scientists and some other key Federally defined underrepresented groups. So, according to market forces the Departments would have to PAY. More salary. More support. More startup cash. More housing / relocation allowances. More spousal hire opportunity. More everything.

This plan short circuits that by locking in candidates before they are as competitive on the open market. When they are still relatively desperate and/or think this is a great opportunity to jump ahead on the career arc. And as more Departments catch wind of this excellent strategy they are more likely to opt for this can-kicking strategy and less likely to PAY to get those who are currently trained to the usual point of faculty hires.

Scientists are complete idiots on the business of science.

Once upon a time I asked Science Twitter to opine on whether they had ever met anyone smarter than they are. They, being mostly not sociopathic narcissists, said they had.

So far, so good. They are also quite willing to admit the obvious,

except for those weenie few per cent that are left after we discount the spoiler/joker rate. These are undoubtedly the duplicitous folks that claim never to think anyone else is an idiot.

I threw in a distractor for the parents in the crowd….

..but seriously, for many in my audience, this is going to be the situation where they are most able to rub elbows with something like the full distribution in their country. Public elementary school. Of course, many will already be on a very select track due to their choice of geographic location.

Next, we moved on to some science logic. Totes different and unrelated issue.

Here we see the joker rate of 3.4% on full display. Most Science Twitter types know this is nonsense. We LIVE for trying to assess the central tendency within a sample that expresses some portion of the variability that exists in the presumed population we are trying to study. Mean plus or minus error bar. bam.

Oh, they are getting warmed up now. A little worrisom on the joker rate but maybe people were just fired up to click the first option? Anyway, CLEARLY, a correlation can exist without ever point being perfectly predictive of the central tendency of the relationship between two variables. And CLEARLY the fact that there is some variability in one measure does not mean it does not tell us, on average, about the other measure if those two things are correlated. And as good scientists who are able to understand the idea of central tendency and error, we do not throw out a correlation if it does not form an invariant line. Or at least most of us do not.

Now, what about the simplest of experimental designs? The two factor, two level quad box that appears in the first chapter of any Experimental Design text book?

Well OF COURSE good scientists understand that there can be not just random variation in a measure, there can be non-random variation. I.e., an influence of another factor! And this may be a constant but is most often a variable influence. Which, gasp, may INTERACT with the first factor in some way….often a variable way. So of course these good scientists, many who deal with this very simple reality of the natural world on a daily basis, report that they are well aware of such things and would never toss a measure just because it was influenced in an identifiable way by more than factor. Geez, don’t insult our intelligence here.

Okay, so we finally got to the water drinking part.

Good god, scientists let all of their training go right straight out of the window when it comes to the business of being a professional scientist.

Why indeed.

I have several motivations, deployed variably and therefore, my answers to his question about a journal-less world vary.

First and foremost I review manuscripts as a reciprocal professional obligation, motivated by the desire I have to get my papers published. It is distasteful free-rider behavior to not review at least as often as you require the field to review for you. That is, approximately 3 times your number of unique-journal submissions. Should we ever move to a point where I do not expect any such review of my work to be necessary, then this prime motivator goes to zero. So, “none”.

The least palatable (to me) motivation is the gatekeeper motivation. I do hope this is the rarest of reviews that I write. Gatekeeper motivation leads to reviews that try really hard to get the editor to reject the manuscript or to persuade the authors that this really should not be presented to the public in anything conceivably related to current form. In my recollection, this is because it is too slim for even my rather expansive views on “least publishable unit” or because there is some really bad interpretation or experimental design going on. In a world where these works appeared in pre-print, I think I would be mostly unmotivated to supply my thoughts in public. Mostly because I think this would just be obvious to anyone in the field and therefore what is the point of me posturing around on some biorxiv comment field about how smart I was to notice it.

In the middle of this space I have the motivation to try to improve the presentation of work that I have an interest in. The most fun papers to review for me are, of course, the ones directly related to my professional interests. For the most part, I am motivated to see at least some part of the work in print. I hope my critical comments are mostly in the nature of
“you need to rein back your expansive claims” and only much less often in the vein of “you need to do more work on what I would wish to see next”. I hate those when we get them and I hope I only rarely make them.

This latter motivation is, I expect, the one that would most drive me to make comments in a journal-less world. I am not sure that I would do much of this and the entirely obvious sources of bias in go/no-go make it even more likely that I wouldn’t comment. Look, there isn’t much value in a bunch of congratulatory comments on a scientific paper. The value is in critique and in drawing together a series of implications for our knowledge on the topic at hand. This latter is what review articles are for, and I am not personally big into those. So that wouldn’t motivate me. Critique? What’s the value? In pre-publication review there is some chance that this critique will result in changes where it counts. Data re-analysis, maybe some more studies added, a more focused interpretation narrative, better contextualization of the work…etc. In post-publication review, it is much less likely to result in any changes. Maybe a few readers will notice something that they didn’t already come up with for themselves. Maybe. I don’t have the sort of arrogance that thinks I’m some sort of brilliant reader of the paper. I think people that envision some new world order where the unique brilliance of their critical reviews are made public have serious narcissism issues, frankly. I’m open to discussion on that but it is my gut response.

On the flip side of this is cost. If you don’t think the process of peer review in subfields is already fraught with tit-for-tat vengeance seeking even when it is single-blind, well, I have a Covid cure to sell you. This will motivate people not to post public, unblinded critical comments on their peers’ papers. Because they don’t want to trigger revenge behaviors. It won’t just be a tit-for-tat waged in these “overlay” journals of the future or in the comment fields of pre-print servers. Oh no. It will bleed over into all of the areas of academic science including grant review, assistant professor hiring, promotion letters, etc, etc. I appreciate that Professor Eisen has an optimistic view of human nature and believes these issues to be minor. I do not have an optimistic view of human nature and I believe these issues to be hugely motivational.

We’ve had various attempts to get online, post-publication commentary of the journal-club nature crash and burn over the years. Decades by now. The efforts die because of a lack of use. Always. People in science just don’t make public review type comments, despite the means being readily available and simple. I assure you it is not because they do not have interesting and productive views on published work. It is because they see very little positive value and a whole lot of potential harm for their careers.

How do we change this, I feel sure Professor Eisen would challenge me.

I submit to you that we first start with looking at those who are already keen to take up such commentary. Who drop their opinions on the work of colleagues at the drop of a hat with nary a care about how it will be perceived. Why do they do it?

I mean yes, narcissistic assholes, sure but that’s not the general point.

It is those who feel themselves unassailable. Those who do not fear* any real risk of their opinions triggering revenge behavior.

In short, the empowered. Tenured. HHMI funded.

So, in order to move into a glorious new world of public post-publication review of scientific works, you have to make everyone feel unassailable. As if their opinion does not have to be filtered, modulated or squelched because of potential career blow-back.


*Sure, there are those dumbasses who know they are at risk of revenge behavior but can’t stfu with their opinions. I don’t recommend this as an approach, based on long personal experience.

A quick google search turns up this definition of prescriptive: “relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method.” Another one brings up this definition, and refinement, for descriptive: “describing or classifying in an objective and nonjudgmental way….. describing accents, forms, structures, and usage without making value judgments.

We have tread this duality a time or two on this blog. Back in the salad days of science blogging, it led to many a blog war.

In our typical fights, I or PP would offer comments describing the state of the grant-funded, academic biomedical science career as we see it. This would usually be in the course of offering what we saw as some of the best strategies and approaches for the individual who is operating within this professional sphere. Right now, as is, as it is found. Etc. For them to succeed.

Inevitably, despite all evidence, someone would come along and get all red about such comments as if we were prescribing, instead of describing, whatever specific or general reality we were describing.

Pick your issue. I don’t like writing a million grants to get the barest hope of winning one. I think this is a stupid way for the NIH to behave and a huge waste of time and taxpayer resources. So when I tell jr and not so jr faculty to submit a ton of grants this is not an endorsement of the NIH system as I see it. It is advice to help the individual to succeed despite the problems with the system. I tee off on Glam all the time….but would never tell a new PI not to seek JIF points wherever possible. There are many things I say about how NIH grant review should go, that might seem to contrast with my actual reviewer behavior for anyone who has been on study section with YHN. (For those who are wondering, this has mostly to do with my overarching belief that NIH grant review should be fair. Even if one objects to some of the structural aspects of review, one should not blow it all up at the expense of the applications that are in front of a given reviewer.) The fact that I bang on about first and senior authorship strategy for respective career stages doesn’t mean that I believe that chronic middle-author contributions shouldn’t be better recognized.

I can walk and chew gum.

Twitter has erupted in the past few days. There are many who are very angered by a piece published in Nature Communications by AlShebli et al which can be summarized by this sentence in the Abstract “We also find that increasing the proportion of female mentors is associated not only with a reduction in post-mentorship impact of female protégés, but also a reduction in the gain of female mentors.” This was recently followed, in grand old rump sniffing (demi)Glam Mag tradition by an article by Sterling et al. in PNAS. The key Abstract sentence for this one was “we find women earn less than men, net of human capital factors like engineering degree and grade point average, and that the influence of gender on starting salaries is associated with self-efficacy“. In context, “self-efficacy” means “self-confidence“.

For the most part, these articles are descriptive. The authors of the first analyze citation metrics, i.e. “We analyze 215 million scientists and 222 million papers taken from the Microsoft Academic Graph (MAG) dataset42, which contains detailed records of scientific publications and their citation network”. The authors of the second conducted a survey investigation: “To assess individual beliefs about one’s technical ability we measure ESE, a five-item validated measure on a five-point scale (0 = “not confident” to 4 = “extremely confident,” alpha = 0.87; SI Appendix, section S1). Participants were asked, “How confident are you in your ability to do each of the following at this time?”:”

Quite naturally, the problem comes in where the descriptive is blurred with the prescriptive. First, because it can appear as if any suggestion of optimized behavior within the constraints of the reality that is being described, is in fact a defense of that reality. Intentional or unintentional. Second, because prescribing a course of action that accords with the reality that is being described, almost inevitably contributes to perpetuation of the system that is being described. Each of thse articles is a mixed bag, of course. A key sentence or two can be all the evidence that is needed to launch a thousand outraged tweets. I once famously described the NSF (in contrast to the NIH) as being a grant funding system designed for amateur scientists. You can imagine how many people failed to note the “designed for” and accused me of calling what I saw as the victims of this old fashioned, un-updated approach “amateurs”. It did not go well then.

The first set of authors’ suggestions are being interpreted as saying that nobody should train with female PIs because it will be terrible for their careers, broadly writ. The war against the second set of authors is just getting fully engaged, but I suspect it will fall mostly along the lines of the descriptive being conflated with the prescriptive, i.e., that it is okay to screw over the less-overconfident person.

You will see these issues being argued and conflated and parsed in the Twitter storm. As you are well aware, Dear Reader, I believe such imprecise and loaded and miscommunicated and angry discussion is the key to working through all of the issues. People do some of their best work when they are mad as all get out.


We’ve been through these arguments before. Frequently, in my recollection. And I would say that the most angry disputes come around because of people who are not so good at distinguishing the prescriptive from the descriptive. And who are very, very keen to first kill the messenger.

A certain someone has taken it upon himself to lampoon certain types of solicitations issued by a lab head for postdocs and occasionally for graduate students, when they appear on Twitter. The triggering material included in such solicitations are terms such as “independent”, “energetic”, “brilliant”, “highly motivated”, “creative” and the like. Sometimes the trigger for this certain someone is merely a comment that the applicant should be experienced in some particular scientific technique. Seemingly inoffensive and very traditional, right? I mean, every lab head wants the lab to be as successful as possible and that means that they want good rather than bad employees.


Whoops. But we’re talking about trainees, right? Graduate students and postdoctoral trainees.

They are supposed to be getting something from the lab, not the other way around. Correct? So this over emphasis on how the PI only wants to hire the most talented, rather than the most needy, individuals pulls back the curtain to reveal the seamy truth.

“Trainees” in biomedical science are in large part the workforce. Which is obtained for less money due to the “training” misdirection.


This is one that set me off recently, thanks to our beloved aforementioned trollerpants. Chit chat amongst the Professor class that they “need” a postdoc now. Or general announcements that they will be soon looking to “hire a graduate student” in their new appointment, whee! but…”need”.

And of course coupling this to the above focus on the very best, most motivated, well trained, energetic self-starting individuals?

The notion of actually competing for the best of the available postdocs raises an ugly head.

You will be entirely unsurprised that I couple all of this to my views on labor in academic research labs and, in particular, the way we go along deluding ourselves that we are not part of any sort of labor market. I couple this to my thinking about ways to make academic careers slightly less hellish on the factors which are usually rubbing points.

Thinking more about the labor aspects of what is now academic “training” lets us think, I believe, more creatively about making things better for all of us.

No, it does not magically invent more Professor jobs. It does not restore State level commitment of funds to public Universities and thereby relieve the pressure for extramural funds. It does not make the NIH budget double overnight and therefore reduce pressure for the grant seekers.

But creating stable, long term job categories for those who are now some thin rebranding of “postdoc” could advance us. Creating stable career jobs to do the pure work part of the graduate student job could advance us.

Yes, this means we will “train” fewer graduate students and replace that labor with technicians. Who will be more or less expected to journey through their career as a career. Benefits. Increasing salaries with experience and longevity.

It’s gonna cost.

That brings me around to grant review. It always comes back to grant review.

One of the reasons NIH put the modular budget in place is to get reviewers to stop with the ticky tack over costs. Costs that vary all across the country from place to place. Costs that a certain species of reviewer just could not get through their head would vary. Costs that a certain species of reviewer delighted in using to spike a grant because those outrageous cage costs at Big U were higher than they were paying at their LessBig U.

And salary.

A certain species of reviewer is very concerned about salaries paid, if they can just get their beady little eyes on the information. A related species is very concerned about how many individuals are being paid off the grant, if they can just get their eyes on that information.

It is very hard to get their eyes on contributions by graduate students or postdocs who are on a fellowship or Program paid stipend. It is inevitably that they get their eyes on technician salaries when looking at an itemized budget.

I have recently received a grant review comment that clearly I was paying my technical staff too much, coupled with an obviously grudging admission that the person had long experience as a technician.

I have related more than once on these pages that over time I have generally relied more on tech labor than on the “trainee” scam. This, as our second President of the USA John Adams famously remarked about his refusal to use enslaved labor, costs me. It costs my grants and therefore I get less productivity per dollar compared with someone who is willing to fully exploit cut-rate labor under guise of “trainee” job categories. I do not turn my techs over willy-nilly every several years to reset salaries, either. And the way things work in these here United States, people get paid more over time. Those with more experience get paid more than those with less, even if the lesser experienced person could do the same job.

So when my peers who review my grants say that the merit of my proposal is diminished because I make these labor choices in my lab, and suggest that what I should be doing is exploiting the heck out of labor by using less experienced and cheaper techs…..

I get a little shouty. and bloggy.

For every reviewer who is dumb enough to actually write this in a critique, there are ten that are thinking it. They are taking a less positive cant on my proposal as a consequence. And possibly looking for other ways to express their disapproval.

I myself have occasionally fallen into to the “too many staff for the work described” review space. I’ve done it super rarely, so I think I’m probably on solid ground. The only cases I can recall were really, really egregious. But I need to watch myself, as do you. How often are you thinking that a major grant will receive the supplemental help of undergraduate “interns”? grand students or postdocs on “their own” fellowships? How many times have you questioned the role of a staff scientist when surely a postdoc would do?

There was a thread on the Twitters today complaining about graduate students being called trainees.

The conversation went in all of the usual directions.

Because, of course, the “hot take” is correct. We have increased the number of post-graduate trainees in doctoral granting programs so as to obtain cut-rate labor to service our biomedical science research laboratory work. Yes. Absolutely.

To service the work that our federal government is asking us to do, and paying us to do, via the NIH, NSF and a few other major grant-making entities.

Grants to not-for-profit Universities and Research Institutes are, of course, a way for the US federal government to try to get cut-rate labor to service its goals. By leveraging the power of calling middle management “Professors” to justify underpaying us for the job we are doing. (“Underpaying” is a concept I have on good authority from practically every academic I’ve spoken with about their satisfaction with their compensation.)

Getting back to the pre-doctoral exploit, however, their is this notion of a valuable credential being dangled as the additional compensation. The award of the PhD (and the presumed training that comes with it) is supposed to make up for any perceived deficiencies in month to month paychecks. And it does have value. This credential is necessary for many subsequent job categories that are perceived as being desired. Or at least more desired than the jobs that are available, or the compensation that is available, for those without this particular credential.

My question for today is, would things be better in academic science if, instead of the credential model we operated on the peformance based, resume building model?

Everyone enters this pipeline as a fresh faced bachelor’s degree recipient and gets paid as a real employee on technician wages. Just like our current tech class. From there on, advance to the first supervisory step (like the current postdoc stage) depends merely on performance, opportunity and drive. If you just put in your time, you stay a tech. And move up on that trajectory. If you take an interest in the broader science issues and do more than just put in your hours under direction of the higher-ups, more like what we expect out of current graduate students, well, at some point you are competitive for the entry level manager position. And you get some techs to direct.

Then again, if you want to move up to the next level, junior faculty-ish we can say, you have to produce. You have to produce and show you can “run a team and act in all ways like a PI save name” and….boom. You get to be PI.

From there, if you take the extra time to also teach classes, since we’re going to have the adjunctification of traditional teaching duties rolled into this re-alignment of course, maybe you eventually earn the title of Professor. If we still have that.

At every stage, the key is that you are more or less expected to be able to make a career at that stage if that is what fits you. Techs can remain techs. Job longevity. Steady raises. Benefits. Low level managers…ditto.

Look you still have to perform. Every workplace has turnover for competence and for fit. But then again I see checkout folks at my local Costco that I’ve seen there for well over two decades. Same job, presumably with incremental raises. No need to constantly run upward merely to stay in your job.

And I assume there are those who I saw two decades ago who have moved up in managerial tracks either within Costco or in some other retail business.

What would it look like if we de-credentialed academic science?

The first (I think) season of The Expanse space drama teevee show had a small sideline of something that I think I recall enough from similar fiction to be a trope. The show has the class element built into it, especially in that first season. There are rich people on the space station and poor people. The masses struggle to survive, live dirtily and envy the people living above them who they have to knuckle under to.

Resources are finite (unlike a Star Trek type of show, or even Star Wars) and of course the control of these resources is used to further oppress the masses and bend them to the will of the elite.

Well, one of those resources in this particular show is oxygen.

A pretty big deal, of course, when the only known place with an excess of this element that is essential to life is back on Earth. Now, perhaps in some space drama situations the supply of air IS like the trolley problem. A very direct sort of “If I get the oxygen, you die and vice versa” does pop up but usually this is within the trope of self-sacrifice. Like Jack and Rose and that damn door in the Titanic blockbuster.

But the better situation is the one in The Expanse where the rich people could just sort of lean out the oxygen for the poor people. Yeah, I’m not entirely sure how that sort of thing is pulled off in a space station but whatever. Go with it. The show sets it up as a class control issue I seem to recall, but it could very well be one of limited resources. On the space station, what happens if oxygen becomes a truly limited resource? Are the powerful going to keep themselves in normal operation even if they have to starve the powerless to do it?

Have you ever lived at altitude for a few days? The mile high in Denver sucks badly enough. When you first get there, you are…weak. You aren’t dying or anything. You can live and do stuff. You just suck at it. You can’t walk briskly up a staircase like you could at sea level. You can’t even think all that well, frankly. And if you have a condition that further compromises your oxygen uptake? Yikes. Could be very painful and nauseating.

Or maybe you went to Denver on the plane and then drove straight up to the mountains and had to operate at two miles up. Say, at a Keystone meeting or a Winter Brain, right peeps? At this point, shit is getting real. And many otherwise healthy folks are feeling really, really bad.

They don’t die though. For the most part. Unless there are exacerbating health conditions. If you sent some people to Keystone Colorado to live for awhile, so that you and your buddies could have the same amount of oxygen you are used to at sea level, it’s not like you are pulling the lever on the trolley track switch to make it run over someone else. They aren’t going to die.

You are just, well, making it suck for them.

Getting back to the space station drama, we reach another nasty little consideration. What if, just suppose, what IF, the rich people were knowingly overpopulating the space station so they’d have plenty of workers competing for scraps. Then nobody would be comfortable enough to come after the rich, they spend all their time just surviving. And the middle class is kept in a precarious enough situation that they don’t want to rock the boat lest their subsistance, semi-comfortable amount of oxygen might be scaled back. I mean that happens right? It happened just last month and I’m sure it was all a mistake and the Governor of the whole place wasn’t really trying to rein in the feisty Professors…


Did I give away the game?


First Generation

April 24, 2020

It can be difficult to be the first person in your family to do something when it comes to careers and training for them. There are always going to be aspects of that career, or training, that are opaque, obscure or intentionally concealed. Many of these things give an advantage, significantly so in many cases, to those who are aware of them.

Academia is our main concern around here and just about every aspect is easier if you know more about how things work, and especially “how things really work” in several cases where the latter is in contradiction to the surface level information.

In a prior brief post I mentioned that I am, more or less, in the family business, i.e., that of public funded education and academics. I’ve probably blogged or commented several related aspects but suffice it to say, academic careers were not strange to me at any part of my life that I can remember. “Dean is a four letter word” is a concept that was drilled into me since childhood. I’ve known about “undergraduate summer research experiences” since before I left elementary school. I knew about tenure and the difficulties associated with not being “amenable to the senior faculty” (yeah that’s a quote from an actual someone’s initial tenure denial after going up early). I got this sort of vague indoctrination into what it meant to be a “good” professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Instruction institution, as compared with various forms of phone-it-in-deadwood….in certain points of view, of course. I have known if you want to be a Professor you had to go to graduate school to get a PhD since approximately forever.

Despite all of this, there is a metric efftonne of stuff about my career as it unfolded that I had not the foggiest clue about until I was upon it or, most likely, after the fact. I attended a smaller college for undergraduate studies and the research opportunities were limited. My department faculty was all emeritizing at the time and were not doing much research at all. They were not trying to groom us for doctoral studies in any specific way. One relatively new professor took me under his wing, got me some summer research-project funding one year and tried to kind of help me along, but it was not super aggressive in terms of telling me all the ins and outs of career planning.

I have found many aspects of my career opaque, some of which is my own fault of course. I just blundered forward on the immediately observable rules in front of me at the time. “Apply for grad school, this Prof stuff seems like something I would like to do forever“. Apply for these graduate fellowships at the same time, sure why not? Financial aid was familiar from the college application/choice process so…”this is basically the same, I think?“. Which graduate programs? “Well, I want to live here, here or here and not there….I think these programs are somehow ranked in the top 25 of my discipline so..looks good!“.

I knew less than Jon Snow. Somewhere in the process of reviewing graduate school materials I realized they were going to pay me a stipend. Or maybe it was when I started looking for what I thought of initially as “financial aid” to cover tuition and maybe living expenses in part. At some point I connected the dots. I am certain I never cottoned on to this from my family experience. I was missing that piece. I don’t think any of my college professors ever told me this directly (and most of their experiences were decades out of date). I didn’t really think that hard about how graduate training disciplines came with important differences in how graduate support worked. Nobody explained any of this.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I didn’t know how to find out until….oh, around my second postdoc I started to get a clue.

I cannot imagine how hard all of this is for someone who does not have any family members who have completed a four year undergraduate education. I can’t imagine how random it would be for such a person to really grasp, as they are being educated at a research university even, all of these critical facts. I have gone out of my way with every undergraduate who has sought a research experience in my laboratory to point out that graduate school pays a salary. I think it is absolutely critical, if we are to do even the most basic of recruiting efforts with people who are underrepresented in academics and in science.

The world of academia, particularly the one I inhabit, has been much better in recent years about paying attention to first generation students. From undergraduate admissions, retention, support and assistance to the provision of graduate slots and fellowships, through to postdoctoral and faculty funding opportunities, we are treating first generation as special. Explictly or implicitly as if they are an underrepresented minority group.

Now yes, many such individuals are already within some other category of under-representation. Which then makes us ask who is leftover, and of course it generally means less-privileged white folks in these here United States of America. I grew up in a super majority white part of the country where the best hope for a really smart kid from one of the local deeply rooted families was to join the military and gtfo of that place. I am not kidding. Despite the presence of a local undergraduate institution and we, the families of the Professors of said institution, there is no friggin way the local yokel family kid who was really fricken smart (and I went to school with them, there were several) was going to end up where I ended up. Ok, ok, I know that statistically many of you, Dear Readers, did come from similar backgrounds, but the hit rate is really low. I get it. I believe in it. I work for it. We should focus on first generation people as if they are an underrepresented minority.


This gets us deep into the Oppression Olympics about who is most deserving and who needs to come second at the gravy train. There are no good answers and I am sure we all struggle with our own perspectives and biases.

One key issue is passing. A person from my home town who manages to make it into academia may be able to pass entirely. His or her colleagues will never know about their background unless they choose to share. This is countered by the “what about Obama’s kids???” cries about how visual distinction may hide a background that is advantaged and just like everyone in the majority.

Yep. Lots of nasty arguments to be had.

This sort of Oppression Olympics thinking affects our takes on any claims to first generation in academics in weird ways. I’ve seen, I think, people trying to claim that they are super underprivileged because they didn’t have a parent ever go to grad school. Now, Mummy and or Daddy may be four year college educated, possibly at a awesome-name college and the family may be rich as all get out due to success in some endeavor unrelated to anything PhD holders do. But the person has not been around life-long academic scientist types and so feels justified in identifying with hashtag-firstgen with a PhD addendum.

This angers some people.

I am not certain how I feel about it. I feel that many of us can be very much at sea about our careers despite a family steeped in higher education activity. Sometimes it is because the family experience was in a totally different discipline or our experience of it was when that family member was in a totally different job type than the one we are targeting. Sometimes it is because of the decades long gap and the changing nature of being an academic.

On the other hand, yeah, we have a problem in all of USian life right now where everyone in the upper-middle to frankly upper slice wants to define themselves as average. And to actually feel just a little bit under-privileged. Because of course we are always looking up at someone who has a little bit more than us, instead of the majority of this country which has less. It’s common. I get it. But it does also ring a little false to me when someone of apparent socio-economic privileges starts brandishing a “pity me” hashtag of first gen, just because they have two kids in their grad class with parents that published papers in the field they are in.

The concept that we are “eating our seed corn” if we don’t do X, Y or Z to support junior scientists is completely misinformed, inapplicable and wrong.

This was super popular back when the ESI issues were being debated and the NIH was trying to justify giving special consideration to fund the applications of new comers to the system. I do happen to support continued efforts to help those who are on the short end of the NIH grant award stick, but this is mostly about the concept and how it leads to bad thinking.

“Eating our seed corn” has raised its misguided head in the Time of Corona as we are discussing University polices that have, apparently, started to slow walk new hires, pull back startup funds of recent hires, etc. There was even a little hint of graduate programs pulling offers of graduate stipends if the candidates had not responded to an offer yet, despite the deadline for response being in the future.

This is bad. Yes, it’s devastating for those individuals who are in the transition zones right now and are being denied opportunities that were in front of them. It’s devastating for departments and laboratories that were very much looking forward to securing new contributors. What it is NOT is “eating our seed corn”.

For those that have never so much as planted a food garden…. I am going to risk insulting your intelligence and to point out the obvious. “Seed corn” concerns were from a time of agriculture when a person hoping to grow a crop couldn’t just run down to the feed store and buy seeds whenever they wanted to. It comes from a time where you had to save your own seeds from the harvest time so that you could use them, about six months later after the winter snows had cleared, to grow next year’s crop(s). No problem right? Millenia of agriculture agrees- set aside enough seeds fro harvest to plant for next year. Easy peasy.

But…sometimes there wasn’t enough food to get through the winter. Seeds, of course, are also food. The corn kernels that we eat are those same seeds that can be planted to grow next year’s crops. And if you eat all your seeds to make it through this winter, you are going to have no corn crop next year. Or the year after that. or ever. Until someone takes pity on you and gives you some of their seed corn.

You can’t just make new seeds after you’ve eaten them.

New scientists are not like this. At all.

We CAN make new ones whenever we want, even if we’ve skipped several cycles. As I’ve noted in another context, if we have a department that literally closes it’s graduate program admissions for five years….they can start right back up in year six with essential zero headaches. The same professors suddenly forgot how to train graduate students? Please.

That’s because the proper analogy is more like acorns. Graduate student production is a perennial, not an annual, crop. If you have a big old oak tree on your property, it’s gonna grow acorns. Every year. We don’t chop it down to eat the tree when we get really hungry in the winter, right? It’s not edible. So next year, it’s gonna grow more acorns. And the cycle of health for that tree is really, really long. It doesn’t care if you ate 25% or 100% of the acorns it grew last year, it’s going to produce more next year. And the year after that. And after that.

If growing conditions are terrible, sure, many perennial agricultural producers may have low output that season. Some may even fail to produce anything edible that season at all. But as soon as the conditions return to favorable, that plant produces another crop. It takes a really, really bad set of conditions, sustained for years likely, to kill an oak tree. Short of devastating trauma, that is.

Sticking with the agricultural references, we are facing a water shortage and not a wildfire. We are not Little House on the Prairie where we have only ourselves on which to rely for seeds. We are most certainly not solely dependent on annual food crops. The enterprise of scientific research in the US is a perennial. It has persistence and resilience.

The ESI debate was no different. We were not then, and are not now, talking about the sort of existential emergency that is described by “eating our seed corn”. We are talking about priorities of how many plants and in what variety we can support, given a water supply that is rationed by external forces. We’re only getting so many acre-feet this year. And it looks to be less than we got last year.

The point is that we need to make rational, thinking choices about what we are going to prioritize and support. We should not panic, running all about screaming that every crop will be gone forever if we don’t water it just like it was watered last year.

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.

Duke University has agreed to pay $54.5 million to settle a class-action anti-trust lawsuit:

In the class action lawsuit Seaman v. Duke University, Danielle Seaman—an assistant professor of radiology at Duke when she filed the case—alleged that Duke and UNC agreed not to hire each other’s employees, which would violate federal antitrust laws protecting competition and wages.

UNC got off scot free, apparently, because it is the state government:

Because it is an actor of the state government, UNC settled the lawsuit in January 2018 without paying any money or admitting wrongdoing. However, it agreed to never enter a no-hire agreement and provide information to Seaman’s attorneys.

This should concern all academics, as should the recent settlement that USC paid to UCSD. In this latter case it is still a little obscure where the crime was, seemingly the real issue is theft of data by the PI with the conspiratorial assistance of persons at USC. But it is being reported and discussed in a way that casts the mere recruitment of a PI who is in charge of a lot of research funding as being somehow malign. There is a subtext emerging from some academics that it is somehow unfair that a private University is paying a salary increase ($500k per year per this report) over the reportedly low salary scales available at a University of California campus.

This is the stuff of Labor and Ownership of the Means of Production.

We academic researcher types bring value to our Universities and Research Institutions. There are various ways we are compensated for the value the institution believes we convey to them. Now and in the future. Hiring of this valuable labor (us) is competitive. Universities seek to get the “best” of the youngsters hired into faculty ranks. They seek to discard the ones that are not fulfilling the expectations within about 6-7 years, so that they can try again with a new prospect. They seek to retain the ones that are living up to expectations at the lowest possible cost. They also seek to hire mid-level or senior-level investigators who are proven values…and they expect them to continue to express that value. The costs may be higher, but again, this is business. The University is highly motivated to get the most productive value for the cheapest possible cost.

And academic institutions have worked for decades to convince the labor force to take less compensation. Tenure. Academic titles. Promises of stable working conditions and employment. Lifestyle. Cultural memes of higher callings, vocations, etc. Many ways to convince us we are not in fact Labor. So we won’t get uppity and ACT like labor. With organized, common interests.

As I mentioned before, I have recently gone through a mid-career recruitment process that ended with me accepting a new job. This was a very complex situation involving many moving parts but there is zero doubt that my calling card, my value in all of this, was my established track record of NIH grant funding. And this record led directly to the nature of the job offers. By this I mean the resources extended, appointment titles, research space and, yes, annual salary.

There is also zero doubt that the offers were limited by a desire on the part of the various institutions to keep or hire me at the lowest possible cost to them. This is the way the world works, in my experience, and I was not deeply offended. I get that this is labor / management. I get that if the institution thinks that a prospective hire is vulnerable to a low ball in some area of the discussion, they are going to try it. And I get that sometimes the prospective hire is going to put up with that because in the balance of upside/downside it is worth it.

The UNC/Duke conspiracy is one of those cases where the institutions were presumably seeking something more direct than the usual broad industry agreements not to raise salaries too high for certain job categories. Likely due to geography. One of the things that makes academic workers vulnerable to the industry is the geographical dispersion of the job locations. Moving is not trivial for workers with families and with working professional spouses, especially. So this gives institutions a lot of leverage to low ball if they think the prospective worker really, really wants to live in their geographical region. It also gives disgruntled workers a lot of incentive to look for a new job at a nearby institution if it is available. And in many regions, it is available. (I seem to recall from the UCSD/USC situation that the investigator was going to be set up for work in San Diego, not LA?) Duke and UNC share a geographical catchment area for labor. Beyond LA and San Diego there are the Bay Area, Boston, Baltimore/DC, NYC, Seattle…. Many of the US geographical areas that are hot for academic science share multiple institutions where one might seek employment.

We can’t overturn the balance of power between academics and institutions, of course. But we can change our recognition of what is going on and at the very LEAST not participate on the side of the institutions. So stop calling the USC actions “poaching” of an investigator as if mid-career recruitment efforts are unsavory in and of themselves. Stop being jealous that the guy was offered $500K in annual salary. Stop whinging about how surely so-and-so did not deserve what they were offered, just because you weren’t. Stop viewing poor little state, public, tax payer funded University of California as the victim of the big bad University of Spoiled Children- UC has many exceptionally active research campuses and I guarantee you they are recruiting mid- and senior-career faculty at all times. Stop dunking on Duke and realize that UNC was also culpable (even if it escaped by being a government entity) and that this is just the raw edge of practices in the entire business. Right? How many times have academics had to justify salary requests by reference to other salaries in the industry? A bazillion. It’s a conspiracy. It’s normal…but it is collusion. And we don’t have to be part of that collusion. We are LABOR and we should act accordingly. Negotiate accordingly. Job seek accordingly.

Above all else, understand and analyze news of the day accordingly, even if the reporters are muddying the waters as much as they possibly can.

The Society for Neuroscience recently twittered a brag about it’s Neuroscience Scholars program.

It was the “38 years” part that got me. That is a long time. And we still do not have anything like robust participation of underrepresented* individuals in neuroscience. This suggests that particularly when it comes to “career growth” goals of this program, it is failing. I stepped over to the SfN page on the Program and was keen to see outcomes, aka, faculty. Nothing. Okay, let’s take peek at the PDF brochure reviewing the 30 year history of the program. I started tweeting bits in outrage and then….well, time to blog.

First off, the brochure says the program is funded by the NIH and has been from the outset “.. SfN has received strong support and funding from the NIH, starting in 1982 with funding from what was then the National Institute for Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke (NINCDS). … with strong and enduring support from NIH, in particular NINDS, the NSP is recognized as one of the most successful diversity programs“. Oh? Has it accomplished much? Let’s peer into the report. “Since the first 8 participants who attended the 1981 and 1982 SfN annual meetings, the program has grown to support a total of 579 Scholars to date. During that time, the NSP has helped foster the careers of many successful researchers in neuroscience.” Well we all know foster the careers is nice pablum but it doesn’t say anything about actual accomplishment. And just so we are all nice and clear, SfN itself says this about the goal “The NSP’s current overall goal is to increase the likelihood that diverse trainees who enter the neuroscience field continue to advance in their careers — that is, fixing the “leaky pipeline.”” So yes. FACULTY.

[Sidebar: And I also think the funding by the NIH is plenty of justification for asking about grant success of any Scholars who became faculty, but I don’t see how to get at that. Related to this, I will just note that the Ginther report came out in 2011, 30 years after those “first 8 participants” attended the 1981 SfN meeting.]

Here’s what they have to offer on their survey to determine the outcomes from the first 30 years of the program. “The survey successfully reached 220 past Scholars (approximately 40 percent) and had a strong overall response rate (38 percent, n=84).” As I said on Twitter: ruh roh. Survivor bias bullshit warning alert…….. 84 out of 579 Scholars to date means they only reached 14.5% of their Scholars to determine their outcome. And they are pretty impressed with themselves. “Former Scholars have largely stayed within academia and achieved high standing, including full professorships and other faculty positions.” “Largely”. Nice weasel wording.

And more importantly, do you just maaaaaybe think this sample of respondents is highly frigging enriched in people who made it to professorial appointments and remain active neuroscientists? Again, this is out of the 38% responding of the 40% “reached”, aka 84/579 or 14.5% of all Scholars. And let’s just sum up the pie chart to assess their “largely” claim. I make it out to be that 50 of these scholars are in professorial appointments, this is only 8.6% of the total number of Scholars assisted over 30 years. Another 4 (0.7%) are listed separately as department heads. This does not seem to me to being a strong fix of the supposed leaky pipeline.

Now, as a reminder this is 8.6% out of an already highly selected subset of the most promising underrepresented burgeoning neuroscientists. The SfN brags about how highly competitive the program is “A record 102 applicants applied in 2010 for 20 coveted slots.” RIGHT? So the hugely leaky pipeline of Scholars reporting back for their program review purposes (38% responding of 40% “reached”) is only reflecting the leaking AFTER they’ve already had this 1/5 selection. What about the other 80%? Okay so let’s take their faculty plus department head numbers, multiply by the 0.2% selection factor from their applicant pool (don’t even get me started about those URM trainees who never even apply)…1.86%.

Less than 2%. That’s it?????? That sounds exactly like the terrible numbers of African American faculty in science departments to me. And note, the SFN says it’s program has since 1997 enrolled 48% Hispanic/LatinX and 35% Black/African-American Scholars. So we should be focusing on the total URM faculty numbers. I found another SfN report (pdf) showing there were 1% African-American and 5% Hispanic/Latinx faculty in US neuroscience PhD programs (2016).

This SfN program is doing NOTHING to fix the leaky pipeline problem from what their numbers are telling us.


*I shouldn’t have to point this out but African-Americans constitute about 12.7% of the US population, and Hispanic/Latinx about 17.8%.

Money Talks

March 7, 2019

When you are looking to advance in academic science, sure everything is supposed to be about “scientific merit”. And who knows, maybe that is indeed a very large driver but as we all know there is nothing objective about that assessment. CNS pubs, JIF points, per article citations, overall scientist citations, h-index, “actually reading the papers”….. pfagh.

It’s the money that is a universal language. Grant money. Money that is under your control right now. Your history of acquiring grant money and the deployment of that history to predict your future ability to secure grant money.

We talk about this topic now and again. I have made this blog in very large part about how getting grant money works (and fails to work) within the US biomedical science setting. In this I get pushback from a lot of directions, including those individuals that are basically only lamenting that this is a reality. We also have those individuals that think it is gauche to talk about such things, indecorous to reveal our dirty scrabbling efforts or to suggest that fellow scientists should think hard about how to get grants.

Well, I’ve just been through a process in which no fewer than three academic institutes were deciding whether to employ YHN and simultaneously deciding whether to employ some other scientists working in roughly the same areas as me. And I am here to tell you…it is better to have grant money than not to have grant money. I happened to be on an upswing when most of the decisions were being made and it counted. A lot.

So keep sending in those applications people. Keep your foot on the floor. It is what gets you opportunity. It is what keeps you employed. It is what allows your other talents (like that science stuff) to be so much as viewed. Don’t let anyone gaslight you with “don’t get to big for your britches, junior” or “grants are a means not an ends” (yeah no duh, what does that even mean) or versions of “uppity” or “it’s only fair if every person that wants a grant gets one” or anything else. For you, you in particular? The lesson is clear. Get the money. Do the science. Get some more money. Do some more science.

Minor update

March 7, 2019

I’m in the midst of a significant career….something. Plainly put, I’m changing jobs in the very near future and will be moving my laboratory. As you are used to, Dear Reader, I have a tendency to work out stuff I’ve been thinking about on the blog. Sometimes it is long delayed from the triggering event(s). Sometimes it comes up as a weird pastiche of many different experiences that I have drawn together in my mind. Most of the time I think that what I have been pondering may have some value in terms of the career aspects of this blog that keeps some Readers coming around.

This will be no different.

So I thought I should give a little bit of alert and outline to my remaining Readers.

Up to this point, as you know, I describe my job as an exclusively soft money gig. I’m responsible for securing grants to fund my lab operation and the salaries of my staff. Most pointedly, my own. I tend not to be highly specific about my career timeline on the blog but I’m coming up on two decades as a lab head and as a continuously NIH funded one at that. (touch wood). So this feels like a big mid-career change of the variety that I would prefer there be only one. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past two years about “the second half of my career” in the context of this transition.

Oh yeah. It has been a two year process. And it has a story. Actually, it has many stories. With many, many moving parts and it involves an unusually large number of other people. So. It is not impossible that I will feel unable to talk about some parts of this and may have to flat out lie about some other things if I think it violates someone’s privacy too much. And I will use my usual unreservedly heavy hand of moderation in the comments if anyone strays too far afield with specifics.

At any rate, the thumbnail sketch is this. I will be in a University med school department environment within a few months. It is still a soft money type gig and the expectations of me do not change. I’m supposed to get grants, do science and publish science. I do, however, get partial hard money support of my salary which is a change. Other major changes include the fact I’m going to have to do some teaching and service work that I’ve been able to essentially dodge up to this point, but nothing terribly onerous. I anticipate dealing with a lot more bureaucracy than I had to negotiate up until now.


Before I address that, I have some more blog notes. I started this blog in 2007, using a pseudonym for various reasons of which only some involve me in a personal way. As part of that, and to support those reasons, I tried to keep a lot of personal specifics out of the discussion. This has had its pluses and minuses over the years, and some hilariousity when people assumed I was older, whiter, more female and a host of other things compared with my actual self. Nevertheless it was always my mantra that pseuds only work in a particular direction and if anyone knows your real voice they are going to sniff out your pseud in a trice. And I’ve found this to be true. It is occasionally so obvious to some people that they literally cannot believe you mean the pseud to actually be detached from your real identity and they will bust out with the connection in broad daylight without any particular malign intent. Some time ago a not-all-that-close-to-me colleague referred to my pseud as “the worst kept secret in drug abuse (science)”. Probably true. Most pertinently, my current department colleagues know, my trainees know and my colleagues’ trainees know. The point person on the hire that has resulted in my new job has known since before this all started- pretty sure some key communications occurred on Twitter DMs. Some of the colleagues in the department I am joining know. The blog is something I mention on career brag documents so anyone who was asked to write a reference letter for me knows. The point is that this narrows the space of who I am potentially talking about when I indirectly mention others who are involved in my current job transition. Or when I only mention things that involve other people. So I’m going to have to be a little bit careful, although inevitably my points about myself may draw some contrasts or point some fingers.

On to the “whys”.

  • I miss being on a University campus.
  • I’ve always existed on the outskirts of a department that is itself on the outskirts of my current institution. Scientifically and politically, which has had implications for my career, believe me. I am joining a department for which my work is more in the comfort zone. For now, at least, I feel my work will be a lot more appreciated.
  • My current institution has had its financial and administrative instability hit the papers occasionally. No need for specifics but ultimately I cannot be 100% certain my job in it, or the institution itself, will last my desired career length. The University I am joining will still be here after my grand children are dead.
  • Partial hard money salary, with a tenure guarantee of same until I retire, is a large contrast with my prospects in my current gig.

I was going to say “in no particular order” but right now reading this, it looks like my actual order. fwiw. As far as the other stuff goes, you may assume it is all workable at the worst. Space and support for my work and what not. All good enough to make it work.

The career of an academic scientist is assisted mightily by self-confidence. This is hardly news. But there exist a plethora of insults to our intelligence, preparation, accomplishments and ideas that plague us. Application to graduate school is itself an attack- it’s a cool career and yet you may not be allowed to do it. If you aren’t good enough. On paper. We’ve argued recently about the GRExit but this ties into a broader argument about the “best” way to select graduate students. Which is basically a way of telling some people they suck. The mere fact that we furiously debate which attributes of the applicant are most important should serve as a warning guide post for the future of academia.

There are no fixed agreements about standards of evaluation. This means that literally EVERYBODY SUCKS. (On at least one metric that is super important to someone else in a position to judge us.) That’s just the beginning. Rotations. Qualification exams. Advancement to candidacy. The dissertation “defense”. Manuscript review is notoriously brutal. Grant review is probably even worse. At every turn, the academic is told that she or he is unworthy. A healthy dose of self-confidence comes in handy in my experience.

My gut reaction to most of the slings and arrows has been, and continues to be: “Fuck you! Who are YOU to judge ME you %&*%&*$%%*^?!????”

Internally anyway. I don’t actually say this out loud or in response to a disappointing review. But I knuckle down and start crafting my response to whatever is attacking me, if I need to do so (manuscripts, grant applications), or let it wash over me if I need to ignore it.

This may possibly be genetic. I was having a conversation with some area ~teens recently in which I was trying to get them to see that boundless self-confidence was something they should see as a privilege of being them. I may possible have observed “Do you notice how each and every person in this family pretty much thinks that they themselves are the best possible and always most-correct in every way person on earth?”. Everyone had to ruefully admit that I was right (and to be honest people, I’m the least self-confident person in my family if that tells you anything) but I am not certain that moved the needle much on understanding the privilege issue.

Anyway. I continue to be concerned with a career path that makes such an advantage for the self-confident, and what this means about the people we are selecting for/against. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with self-confidence and I don’t really mind that life might be a little competitive and silly now and again. I am very grateful that I happen to have these traits and am not hamstrung by self-doubt. But there is no reason we need assume that the best science is going to emerge if we make sure that those that lack self-confidence do not succeed.

Tactically I try to show trainees and some junior faculty that it’s not them, it’s the process. That the business tries to beat up everyone. That grant getting is an issue of overwhelmingly bad statistical chances, not an issue of them being unworthy. I really don’t know what else to do.