PIs on screen

January 5, 2012

The Professor guy in Congo really didn’t seem too broken up about his postdoc getting ripped apart by beasts. People complain about maniacal slave driver bosses like MooMing Poo and Scott Kern but c’mon…could be worse.

BikeMonkey Post
No, not what you might be thinking. This is not about any disproportional rate of feeling like an imposter on the part of people who are underrepresented in science. (I’m sure that is a reality, btw.) This is going to be about people who feel like they are impersonating an underrepresented class. To the extent that it bothers them to be fulfilling any sort of role where they are expected to be, overtly, a member of that class. I’ll let Namnezia explain:

I mean, yea, I’m a minority and I do science, I have not much to say beyond that. What bothers me about these panels is that they imply that if you are somehow different then this difference permeates your every thought all the time, as if every time you walk into the lab you think “Oh I wonder which minority/gay/female/disabled issues I’ll be facing today through my unique set of circumstances”. I mean no, I’m thinking more along the lines of “I wonder what science will bring today”. Or, “my kids were a pain in the ass this morning”. Or “I have to pee”. To me, being a minority is pretty much a non-issue during my everyday work.

Yeah, pretty much. For most people who are underrepresented and are in a halfway decent workplace. Just like this is the case for most people who are seemingly underrepresented in their other walks of life- perhaps because of the neighborhood they live in, the town or the state. Their socio-economic status. Perhaps because of where their kids go to school or where their spouse works. Or who their family is…or their spouse’s family.

Most folks I know of in such situations just bloody go about the business of their lives.

It isn’t like shit gets real 24/7.

But sometimes it does. Sometimes.

The fact that one does not have to be on constant alert at all moments of every day for some sort of negative event that is relevant to one’s underrepresented class or status does not mean that one will never experience a negative event. The value as a mentor and role model is not dictated by how much adversity one has suffered*. The value is that one has succeeded. After all, the trainees are not seeking advice on how to suffer so much discrimination that they fail…they are looking to succeed.

The fact that there may be some blessed someones out there who are of underrepresented class or status and will never, ever experience any sort of insult, detriment or other noticeable event because of their class or status does not make those people imposters either. In fact this latter may be highly relevant. After all, if such people exist perhaps others do as well. And they are wondering if they are an imposter and/or what sort of loony world they live in which is discrimination free. So you can mentor them, if you feel this way.

Namnezia’s comment was made to a post by GertyZ who was pondering whether she should volunteer to lead a roundtable for GLBT issues at a scientific meeting. The post and commentary circle around the notion that it is possible for many GLBT types to “pass”. To operate undetected within a majority culture assumption which one does not seemingly fit. Everyone** passes to some degree or other. Passes for majority class and passes for any of a host of minority classes at other times. Rarely** does anyone inhabit a perfect storm of privilege and rarely does anyone inhabit a perfect storm of the lack thereof.

Given this, who is more authentic? Nobody is. We all just live our lives as they unfold. We gain experiences painful or joyous. We get along and get by. We work, we play, we raise our children.

Diverse as we are, our experiences may help others who come behind us along various pathways. Mentoring is, at the very root, using our experiences to help smooth the path for those followers. There is no obligation that I am aware of for the mentee to fit precisely into the footprints of the mentor for this process to be effective.

*Although people who are motivated to dismiss and overlook subtle discrimination are fond of playing this sort of Oppression Olympics and implying that if you’ve never been jumped in an alley by epithet shouting skinheads that all is peachy-keen. Very fond.

**Well, not white educated librul elite uppermiddle class heteronormative jockosporto hailfellowellmet white doods in science, but you take my point.

brooksphd is pondering a letter of recommendation

“X just applied and she listed you as a reference!”

But this feels nice! And scary – is there an added layer of responsibility on both sides of this equation now?

There is, and I observed that one should avoid overselling the candidate in making one’s comments. To this brooksphd replied:

that’s the issue I’m thinking about. Did I, could I, would I maybe oversell (or undersell) someone? Really, would it be bad to now ‘oversell’ someone? to really emphasize their fit because you can write a better letter. Is it common practice? Same as under selling someone is an easy, “I certainly consider this candidate above average. Hir fit in your lab is good. S/he reads the literature and makes solutions at the correct concentration accurately…”

Now, I recognize it is common practice to oversell and I seek ways to include a lot of confidence in the letters that I write for people. I put the best possible spin on my estimation of their talents and I may occasionally neglect to mention the odd deficit that I have observed.

But you have to keep it within reason.

I’ve had at least one experience in the past where I took someone into the lab at least partially on the strength of a recommendation letter…and this turned out to be an unreasonable oversell.

I will remind you that this is in full recognition of the type of excessive enthusiasm that we mentor types often think we need to include in the letter. Also with what I happen to think is a reasonable sympathy for the exigencies of life that can cause people’s work to be somewhat below the stellar, even for extended intervals of time.

This particular trainee sucked.

And it wasn’t just me, either. We’re talking all around failure to perform in the context of multiple obligations of this particular training dealio. It happens, and this is not the main point.

The main point is the original letter writer who testified to the skills of this particular individual in a scientific/laboratory context. There is no way in hell the letter could have been an accurate reflection. No way this person performed well in the past…or even performed at average. No way.

So my opinion of this letter writer is now and forever somewhere less than dirt. For certain sure I would never trust any other recommendations that this person might make.

I learned a lesson, my friends, a very powerful one.

You need to keep your recommendations within bounds. Do NOT ever give a glowing recommendation for someone if you know that they are going to turn out to perform significantly below average.

Because if you get burned, that mud comes back on you.

This comes up not infrequently in laboratories. Suppose one person, a trainee or postdoc, leaves the lab with his or her manuscript not completed*. Sure, this dearly departed individual may have started the project and/or done the bulk of the work on it.

But still, it isn’t a manuscript.

And it therefore isn’t going to be a paper, ever, until someone else steps up and does the work. Finishes the draft at the very least. Polishes off the figures. Submits the damn thing. Fields the original criticisms. Marshals the response to review. Creates the revision.

If one other remaining/subsequent person in the laboratory does all this, the dearly departed loses the first author slot. Arguments about the scientific importance of the original idea or the key data pale at this point.

Because if it isn’t published it didn’t happen.

There is an important practical concern for mentors and you will want to think very closely about this. It opens the door for any subsequent trainee to leave unfinished (as in unsubmitted) projects behind and then later insist that they have the right to be first author when someone else finishes it up. The motivational impact on your trainees’ behavior is somewhere damn close to disastrous.

*Yes, there will be some wiggle here about “Oh, I submitted a complete draft to the PI and all it needed was a little editing” when it wasn’t even close to being submittable.


August 11, 2011

This is hilarious. Mu-Ming Poo, who out-K3rn3d StKern before he even thought of his vomitous screed, is back in the news. Here are some highlights from Poo’s infamous letter to his laboratory

Every one works at least 50 hr a week in the lab (e.g., 8+ hr a day, six days a week). This is by far lower than what I am doing every day and throughout most of my career. You may be smarter or do not want to be as successful, but I am not asking you to match my time in the lab…I mean real bench work. This does not include surfing on the computer and sending and receiving e-mails for non-scientific matters unrelated to your work (you can do this after work in the lab or at home), and excessive chatting on nonscientific matters. No long lunch break except special occasions. I suggest that everyone puts in at least 6 hr concentrated bench work and 2+ hr reading and other research-related activity each day. Reading papers and books should be done mostly after work…But if you do not like to follow the rules because it is simply a matter of choice of life style, I respect your choice but suggest you start making plans immediately and leave the lab by the end of January 31. I will do my best to help you to locate a lab to transfer or to find a job.

Apparently he did not cover the allowable number of potty breaks. Probably an oversight.

Anyhow, disappointed, no doubt with the less-than-enslaved work ethic of the indentured servants available to him from his perch at UC Berkeley, Poo secured a part time appointment in Shanghai. Alas, his dream was short lived. Those ungrateful rat bastard Chinese scientists had the gall to get uppity!

Poo is still sceptical about the future of Chinese science. He worries that misconduct is still tolerated and that the country’s work ethic is being eroded, with students demanding comfortable living arrangements, better food and vacations.

BETTER FOOD????? VACATION??? But children are dying of CANCER!!!! Ooops, I mean “those damn axonal growth cones are not going to direct themselves!!!

…and he might just be applying this to appointed scientists, not just trainees. I guess that is progress?

The ION has also lost senior staff to the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, and other universities. Poo blames the departures on better salaries elsewhere, although a critic ā€” who does not want to be named ā€” points to his ‘overly controlling’ managerial style.

C’mon, I’m sure he’s not asking them to work any harder than he does himself…

This is fantastic.

…CSR is piloting a new program that we call the early career reviewer, where we will take complete novice reviewers, people who have not reviewed for NIH before, very early in their career, probably new investigators.

More thoughts on the matter from Your Humble Narrator and Prof-Like Substance.

A poll for my readers. Do, or did, you read the grant proposals that support the work that you are doing? I’m curious about that at all levels- from undergrad to tech to grad student to postdoc.

I don’t think I had any idea what was in the grants or even what grants supported my work until my last postdoc. In that one, I was given all the proposals and I certainly read them.

How about you? Have you read the grant applications that funded your work at each training stage?

Hitting your marks

July 10, 2011

I am not a very scheduled person. No doubt to my detriment in many areas of life. I don’t make ’em, and I have a hard time sticking to externally imposed ones.

But I have almost always hit my grant deadlines.

In the generic, investigator-initiated grant submission to the NIH, schedule is not all that critical. If you miss a deadline, you just have to wait another 4 months. There are plenty of people who would actually advise you to miss a deadline if your grant is less than perfect.

I’ve always erred on the side of getting the application closed out and submitted. Some of this may be in recognition of my own procrastination. Submitting grant applications is hugely important in my job and maybe I figure that if I let myself skip a deadline that I will never make one again. Or maybe I see myself as someone who is a closer. As being good at getting the application finished and out the door at crunch time. Perhaps I take pride in that…

I’ve fielded questions now and again about PIs that are horrible at this. That seen to habitually fail to meet their grant deadlines. By this, I mean they’ve told their lab and/or admins that they are planning to submit..and the lab could seemingly make good use of another grant, pronto…and yet the proposal never gets submitted. I had a few queries during this recent submission round. The details vary but it all boils down to the same binary issue- you are either giving yourself a chance to win funding or you are not.

The most I can usually do is shrug my ignorance. I don’t understand this phenotype at all. Increasingly, I see trainees, and even techs and admins, that *know* that this is a problem. They are more cognizant these days that grants are hard to come by, that money is tight and safety nets are weak or nonexistent. So they start to worry..about their job, their science and even the personal well being or mental health of the PI.

I mutter platitudes. Maybe the PI got busy with kids or spouse or family. A divorce? Maybe she has other irons in the fire due to collaborative grant writing. Maybe he decided writing papers was critical. Maybe her read of summary statements finally got through to her that revising was a nonstarter. maybe some other proposal recently got scored in the fundable range?

None of these explain the repeat offender, of course.

But I have little else to offer.

Strategically, DearReader, there is a prescriptive lesson herein. Don’t do it. Don’t get a reputation with your lab or admins as a chronic misser-of-grant-deadlines. It makes them really nervous about your competence…and the lab’s medium-term prospects.

You don’t want your people losing confidence in you.

I find myself increasingly trying to hold back and let the trainees have the ideas.

Meaning when I’m discussing one of the projects with a postdoc or two, there are gonna be a lot of ideas that we all could possibly arrive at in the discussion.

I think I used to just ramrod ahead with my ideas and let them state theirs if they could get a word in edgewise. Now I try to hold back more. Let them say the more obvious, and not so obvious, ideas in their own ways.

I am uncertain if I am getting older, better* at mentoring, worse** at mentoring or if it even matters.

*recognizing the power and “style” differential?

**babying them?

Advice on paper writing over at NatureJobs is mostly boilerplate but I was struck by the first observation.


Consider the final paper when you first plan your project


This doesn’t seem as obvious to trainees as one might think, particularly postdocs.


Sometimes I think it is the most essential role of the mentor to keep harping on “how is this going to contribute to the story, how is this going to fit into a paper?


GMP is raging.

I am in a physical science field where journal publications are the most important, and many (many!) faculty have the criterion of 3 journal publications, preferably from the dissertation work, as necessary for graduation. I was quite peeved when I realized that this student would graduate with zero papers

ok. peeved. Why?

I asked the student if there was a reason that he was graduating without a single journal paper; if there was a reason that he must be graduating now and not in, say, a year?…He said it’s because his wife and he had been living apart for some months and he also happened to find a job there. I almost blew my top off

Look. We’re already in a bad place here, GMP.

Read the rest of this entry »

In the “ya learn a new one every day” files comes a Tweet today which says:

We are required to pick J Club articles from high IF journals.

This is stupid. Just…..stupid. And unscholarly. The notion that a laboratory uses this as a criterion for which articles that are permissible to discuss is just….foreign to me.

Journal club, for the uninitiated few in my audience, represents a meeting in which the members of the laboratory discuss a scientific paper. Methods can vary but usually the paper is selected and sent to the laboratory staff about a week in advance of the meeting. One of the lab members generally opens with a presentation of the paper. Maybe at the power-point level with a couple of figures copied in, perhaps with a lot of background context involved as introductory material…but perhaps not.

The reasons for selecting papers vary tremendously in purpose and intent.Just a few I can think of off the top of my head.

  • A review of a foundational paper in the field- for general didactic reasons (“kids these days never read the old stuff“) or because new developments warrant a reconsideration of that prior paper.
  • The very hottest and newest paper in the field is going to revolutionize everything!!!1111!1
  • A paper (foundational, brand new or otherwise) from a tangential field that the laboratory needs to be moving into.
  • Techniques that are of interest to the lab’s current or future directions.
  • A super-complicated paper which is hard to understand and the efforts of the lab brain trust can bring clarity.
  • Education of the most junior trainees on how to properly read and assess a paper for meaning, breadth, scope and clarity.

I don’t see where these goals are served by using some sort of IF cutoff for the journal in which the paper was published.

As we are all well aware, the actual scientific impact of a given paper on the ongoing work of a specific laboratory is entirely uncorrelated with the IF of the journal in question. Unless, of course, your laboratory exists solely to butt-sniff other GlamourMag laboratories and/or solely to publish in the GlamourMags by whatever means necessary. If you are interested in actual science, however, it is inconceivable to me that a lab which can sustain a journal club (i.e., greater than two members) can never have any interest, in or gain any value from reviewing, papers from a variety of journals.

There are downstream implications of this. Another key feature of journal club, especially as the groups get larger, is that a given person will notice a paper that would be of general interest that the other members of the lab (ok, the PI) haven’t noticed yet. And an important function of Journal Club is this literature-scouring part. If the lab head inculcates the group to only focus on that limited subset of GlamourMags (which is what is being done by insisting this is the selection criterion for Journal Club discussions) then those lab members are going to stop reading anything else. They are going to adopt the a smug superior pose that if it ain’t in Science, it ain’t worth reading. This will leave them with an inferior understanding of their own science, first, so this is a big mentorship failure right there. Second, they are going to be unable to serve that literature-filtering and literature-discovering function which, in my view, helps everyone in the laboratory. Most especially the PI, I will admit. If everyone is reading the same four journals there is no hive mind advantage when it comes to covering the scope of possibly-related scientific discovery.

This IF-exclusionary approach will also lead to a follower mentality in the laboratory’s scientific directions. Interesting and novel stuff in science results all the frigging time from a translation of techniques and approaches in one area of science to another. Often times it is the cross-application that turns the ho-hum from one field into something really amazing in another. Interesting stuff also results from long-forgotten minor observations being rescued and followed up with current capabilities, techniques or knowledge that has been developed in the mean time. Someone has to be reading off the beaten path and make the connections to other work for this to occur.


April 20, 2011

The notion that 30 minutes of sustained writing is “madwriting” as if it is some sort of miracle of concentration and productivity is fascinating.
If you had asked me before a day or two ago what I considered highly focused and concentrated writing, I would have said something around about 3-4 hour blocks. If I can get those in, I see some serious progress made on manuscripts or grant applications. Or animal use protocols, or biohazards protocols, or chemical hazards protocols.
And when I’m trying to hit a grant deadline, I’m going to need to put in several of these, anywhere from 5 to 10….and that’s when the writing is going well. Plus, I’ve been doing this for awhile so it isn’t exactly novel behavior…
Writing my dissertation? I was putting in 3-4 hour blocks of time one to two times per day for weeks. That was #madwriting*.
30 minute writing sprints?
Well, I suppose it is very good practice for 4pm on a grant deadline day when the admin says “Where’s the Abstract, Statement of Public Health Relevance and did you update the personal statement on your Biosketch?”
*there were circumstances. there usually are…
Additional Reading
The Twitter Phenomenon of #madwriting

GMP has a hilarious LOL/sob post up over at Academic Jungle in which she laments becoming PI Pushover.

Although I promised myself I would never do that to myself — let the student graduate before all his/her obligations to the group have been fulfilled (the papers we have agreed on are written up and submitted), it turns out I am as much of a pushover as the next faculty, if not more.

I let the temp postdoc graduate at the end of 2010 because we figured a couple of months would not mean much, and graduating in 2010 (sooner) looks better on his CV than 2011 (later)…. in the 3 months he’s been here after the PhD…only just gave me a pathetic draft — unworthy of a second-year grad student, let alone someone experienced in writing papers — of what’s supposed to be the crown jewel paper from his thesis, which clearly demonstrates he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about it any more.

Of course, the academic blogsphere is entirely made up of hardworking trainees with distant, out of touch PIs (on the one hand) and PIs who are highly engaged mentors cursed with lazy-ass trainees (on t’ other).
So the comments are lining up accordingly, just like they will do with this post after I publish it.
But here’s the thing Dear Hardworking Trainee….GMP is right.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dr Becca has a post up in which she ponders a perennial issue for newly established labs….and many other labs as well.

The gist is that which journal you manage to get your work published in is absolutely a career concern. Absolutely. For any newcomers to the academic publishing game that stumbled on this post, suffice it to say that there are many journal ranking systems. These range from the formal to the generally-accepted to the highly personal. Scientists, being the people that they are, tend to take shortcuts when evaluating the quality of someone else’s work, particularly once it ranges afield from the highly specific disciplines which the reviewing individual inhabits. One such shortcut is inferring something about the quality of a particular academic paper by knowledge of the reputation of the journal in which it is published.

One is also judged, however, by the rate at which one publishes and, correspondingly, the total number of publications given a particular career status.

Generally speaking there will be an inverse correlation between rate (or total number) and the status of the journals in which the manuscripts are published.

This is for many reasons, ranging from the fact that a higher-profile work is (generally) going to require more work. More time spent in the lab. More experiments. More analysis. More people’s expertise. Also from the fact that the manuscript may need to be submitted to more higher-profile journals (in sequence, never simultaneously), on average, to get accepted then to get picked up by so-called lesser journals.

This negative correlation of profile/reputation with publishing rate is Dr Becca’s issue of the day. When to keep bashing your head against the “high profile journal” wall and when to decide that the goal of “just getting it published” somewhere/anywhere* takes priority.

I am one who advises balance. The balance that says “don’t bet the entire farm” on unknowables like GlamourMag acceptance. The balance that says to make sure a certain minimum publication rate is obtained. And for a newly transitioning scientist, I think that “at least one pub per year” needs to be the target. And I mean, per year, in print, pulled up in PubMed for that publishing year. Not an average, if you can help it. Not Epub in 2011, print in 2012. Again, if you can help it.

The target. This is not necessarily going to be sufficient…and in some cases a gap of a year or two can be okay. But I think this is a good general rubric for triaging your submission strategy.

It isn’t that one C/N/S pub won’t trump a sustained pub rate and a half-dozen society level publications. It will. The problem is that it is a far from certain outcome. So if you end up with a three year publication gap, no C/N/S pubs and you end up dumping the data in a half-dozen society level journal pubs anyway…well, in grant-getting and tenure-awarding terms, a 2-3 year publication gap with “yeah but NOW we’re submitting this stuff to dump journals like wild fire so all, good, k?” just isn’t smart.

My advice is to take care of business first, get that 1-2 pub per year in bare minimum or halfway decent journals track going, and then to think about layering high-profile risky business on top of that.

Dang, I got all distracted. What I really meant to blog about was a certain type of comment popping up in Dr. Becca’s thread.

The kind of comment that I think pushes the commenter’s pet agenda, vis a vis academic publishing, over what is actually good advice for someone that is newly transitioned to an independent laboratory position. I have my own issues when it comes to this stuff. I think the reification of IF and the pursuit of GlamorMag publication is absolutely ruining the pursuit of knowledge and academic science.

But it is absolutely foolish and bad mentoring to ignore the realities of our careers and the judging of our talents and accomplishments. I’d rather nobody *ever* submitted to journal solely because of the journal’s reputation. I long for the end of each and every academic journal in which the editors are anything other than actual working scientists. The professional journal “editors” will be, as they say, the first against the wall come the revolution in my glorious future. Etc.

But you would never catch me telling someone in Dr. Becca’s position that she should just ignore IF and journal status and publish everything in the easiest venue to get accepted. Never.

You wackaloon Open Access Nazdrul and followers need to dissociate your theology from your advice giving.
*there are minimum standards. “Peer Reviewed” is one such standard. I would argue that “indexed in PubMed” (or your relevant major database) is another such. Also, my arbitrary sub-field snobbery** starts at an Impact Factor of around 1.something…..however I notice that the IF of my touchstone journals for “the bottom” have inched up over the years. Perhaps “2” is my lower bound now.

**see? for some fields this is snobbery. for others, a ridiculous, snarky statement. Are you getting the message yet?