This one is mostly for the PIs in the audience but I’m sure trainees will have experiences to share as well.

What fraction of the people who have spent time in your laboratory have ended up with authorships on published papers?

(Including students and techs)

As those of us in the neurosciences prepare for our largest annual scientific gathering, we should attend to a certain little task to assist with the odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. Part of that process is a long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply “Well, do you want to get funded or not?”.

This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008. I’ve edited a few things for links and content.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in Washington DC is to stroll around NIH row. Right?

I have a few thoughts for the trainees after the jump. I did mention that this is a long game, did I not? Read the rest of this entry »

Some Tweep just gave me syncope.

If you are in graduate school or above, start your Full Monty CV.

Right now.

I don’t know what started the round of “I only got paid X when I was a trainee” on the twitts but I noticed nobody was adjusting for inflation.

Using the US Dept of Labor calculator, I came up with the following.

For an initial frame of general reference, $30K in 2012 is equal to $22K in 2000, $17K in 1990, $11K in 1980 and $5K in 1970.

The grad stipend when I started graduate school was equal to $15.6K in 2012 adjusted dollars. For us, the NSF fellowship was a considerable upgrade and the NSF graduate fellowship from that time is equivalent to $22.6K in 2012.

Interesting. So how are today’s trainees doing?

The current NSF stipend is apparently $30K, a 33% increase in adjusted dollars compared to what it was when I was a graduate student. Looking at my old training department, they are offering a 35% increase in stipend over what they were offering when I started, again, in constant dollars.

I also happened to spend some time on NIH training grant funds so I can also report that my starting postdoc salary was $28.6K in 2012 dollars. The current NRSA base is $39.3K, which represents a 37% increase.

The bottom line is this. We’re in crap economic times and graduate students and postdocs are getting paid at least 33% more than I was, even going by inflation adjusted dollars.

Stop whining about your salary.

In case you absolutely must continue the 300 comment thread which developed under

Alternate careers” is just the next exploitation strategy?

you can have at it here.

The recent Rock Talk posts on graduate student and postdoctoral training are putting data behind truths that many find self-evident. I am struck by the ensuing commentary threads which say the NIH must do better at tracking the fates of trainees.

The subtext seems to be that the NIH should 1) care about large numbers of people training for ten years for academic careers and not achieving those jobs and 2) do something about it.

There is a very good argument to be made that the NIH is quite happy with the status quo. It permits them to get their work done more cheaply. The labor force is persuaded to work hard for less money through the strategy of dangling a PI career on a stick ahead of postdocs.

The “trainees”/labor force are induced to voluntarily put up with exploitation now because they imagine they will be compensated later for their sacrifices.

Understanding of how the odds apply to themselves is, shall we say, incomplete and optimistic.

The interests of the NIH are best served by maintaining the value of the future reward as high as possible.

With this lens we should view any NIH
protestations about alternative careers for which someone trained by them is suited with a healthy suspicion. The NIH does not have any interest in the nature of the carrot they tie to the stick. They only care that it induces the donkey to keep walking.

Remember the task force? Well, the Executive Summary has been issued [PDF].

A few pullquotes of interest from the Recommendations:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period. The best practices resulting from this program will help shape graduate programs across the country. The working group felt that including diverse types of training (e.g. project management and business entrepreneurship skills needed in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, or teaching experiences needed for a successful faculty position in liberal arts colleges) would be particularly valuable for those who go on to conduct NIH-funded research as well as benefit those students who do not follow the academic research career track.

Shorter: Alternate Careers, duh! But they expect training programs to “partner” with business, private foundations and SBIR awardees…. yeah, without putting the money into training grants for this it is very unlikely to happen.

To encourage timely completion of graduate degrees, NIH should cap the number of years a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds (any combination of training grants, fellowships, and research project grants), with an institutional average of 5 years and no one individual allowed to receive support for more than 6 years.

Emphasis added. This addition is huge, if you ask me. It makes it seem pretty serious. I like this. I’m not a fan, at all, of extended graduate training. I am not a fan, at all, of putting publication requirements of any sort in place as the barrier to the PhD. This focus on timeline is the right way to go about it.

To ensure that all graduate students supported by the NIH receive excellent training, NIH should increase the proportion of graduate students supported by training grants and fellowships compared to those supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of graduate student positions.


To ensure that all postdoctoral fellows supported by the NIH receive excellent training and mentoring, NIH should increase the proportion of postdoctoral researchers supported by training grants and fellowships and reduce the number supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of postdoctoral researchers.

Some yahoo on the Twitts seemed to think that I would be dismayed by something in this report, perhaps the salary increases. If you remember comments made by PP about increases to trainee salaries you will likewise recall that his objection that these increases came in the context of a static full-modular grant limit of $250K/year, a fixed year-to-year escalation clause for traditional budget grants of about 3% and the tendency of Program to cut budgets by a module or two in any case. Salary increases put massive pressure on research grants. This plan to shift more of the postdocs currently supported by the NIH from research project grants to training grants has excellent potential to first, manage the salaries and benefits better and second to disconnect those issues from the grant budgets. There is even some potential that PIs would need fewer grants, be able to use them more flexibly (salaries are entirely inflexible save for firing people) and therefore worry less about churning out the applications.
So I love this proposal. Question is, will they look at a department like mine, assess how many trainees have been supported by research grants over time and just hand out that many slots in new TG awards? Second question is, how in the hell are they going to enforce the “without increasing the overall number of….” part? They could, I suppose, take a look at the budget justification of all the research awards in the department, subtract out these new training grant slots and then tell people they cannot put any more trainees on the research grants. maybe.

NIH should revise the peer review criteria for training grants to include consideration of outcomes of all students in the relevant PhD programs at those institutions, not only those supported by the training grant. Study sections reviewing graduate training programs should be educated to value a range of career outcomes. This recommendation could be phased in relatively quickly.

Sure it could. Easy to get the study sections on board with new initiatives is it NIH? How’s that “Innovation” coming along? How are you doing in getting R21s reviewed appropriately? What about ESI applications? Are you still having to pick them up with expanded paylines or are the study sections returning appropriate scores? HAHAHHAHAHAAHA!!!!!!
The first part is good though, you can force applicants to some up with new analyses, sure. Although verification will be a nightmare. The way this is done now is mostly as added-value. That is, departments / TG groups are motivated to include all the trainees not supported by the TG itself that make the group look good. There is no requirement to mention the trainees who didn’t work out, failed, went on to shame as data fakers or anything else at all. So far as I know anyway.

NIH-supported postdoctoral fellows need to be adjusted … index the starting stipend according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) thereafter.

Sounds great…but see above. If they are going to also index research project grants to the CPI-U then no problemo. Increase my budget (even in the noncompeting years) by the amount you are requiring me to increase my postdocs’ salaries / benefits and we have no problem.

The large jump between years 3 and 4 is meant to emphasize a transition from postdoctoral training to research production, and to incentivize PIs to move fellows to more permanent positions.

Yeah….that’s going to work out really swell. What this incentivizes is pushing experienced postdocs along after three years and scooping up noob ones. There is no “move fellows to permanent positions” being facilitated here. Especially since they dropped the ball on superannuated postdocs/staff scientists:

The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.

That’s it. After identifying the problem of sub-PI level scientists and their lack of permanent homes in the system, such as it is. This is what they come up with. FFS, I even laid out the solution for you blockheads! Look, many of these people do not WANT to be in the grant-getting rat race. They just want to do science and to let someone else worry about the details. And how are institutions supposed to “create position categories” when just one section later the report is lambasting the soft-money system? It’s like they are being intentionally obtuse here. Where are the fantasy dollars supposed to come from?

Combined with the emphasis on making a salary jump to discourage keeping 7 yr+ postdocs around, this is not good. At all.

Sink or swim

May 10, 2012

Approximately how much should the PI and postdoc or grad student attend meetings together versus separately?

I think the together part is obvious and should be the majority of the time. The PI is supposed to be introducing the trainee around.

But flying solo can be great for independence.


The big shottes *have* to talk to you if the PI isn’t at the meeting. So I’d definitely be okay with a handful of meetings where the trainee is there without the PI.

Making it habitual, however, is MentorMalpractice.


Thought of the day: if the core faculty of a doctoral program cannot reel off a good thumbnail sketch of their graduate’s professional destinations, there is a problem.

Also: A “top” program that cannot point to a healthy and steady number of faculty appointments over last decades….isn’t.

Quite a few folks around the Intertoobs have commented to the effect that we have too many mouths to be fed by NIH grants. They suggest that we need to take steps to cut down on the “overproduction” of PhD scientists who are, in large numbers, aiming to land independent research positions.

Mid April is the time when graduate programs are wrapping up their admit / acceptance lists for Fall 2012. I’ve heard on the order of a half dozen programs bragging about record numbers of doctoral students lined up for their next class of entry.

Are you kidding me?

Please Dear Reader…tell me you know of programs that are intentionally downsizing?

It is sometimes easy to forget that the trainees do not have a boatload of their writing published yet.

Even if their way of phrasing it kind of sucks ass……there’s that.

One of several tensions between trainees and PI should rightfully be over the “way things should be” and “the way things really work” in science.

The mentor, usually, plays the role of the cynic when it comes to getting papers accepted and grants funded. The trainee, usually, plays this role when it comes to collecting data.

Papers are an interesting situation. Excessive amounts of “this is the voice of experience talking” can lead to a defensive crouch. Conservatism. Never drawing bold conclusions or asserting strong implications.

OTOH, experience is good for something. Knowing what triggers reviewer ire can be the difference between the paper getting accepted instead of being rejected. Naturally, you as PI know it will get in somewhere eventually but trainees have timeline issues that even they might not fully realize.

How inclined are you, Dear PI Reader, to let the trainee submit the paper the way they like it when your bet is that a particular thing will make the reviewers crawl all over you?

Do you let them learn the lesson the hard way?

Oh yes, “again“*.

As mentors and lab heads we should make it emphatically clear to all members of our labs that “co-equal” is only equal in the Animal Farm sense. I.e., not. And to secure the specific understanding that it is a nearly valueless sop.

As reviewers, we should start criticizing the practice with some StockCritique action. I suggest “The co-equal credit is a lie and a sham and serves only to buy off the authors who are not listed first. Please explain in full how the contributions are equal”.

As Associate Editors, ditto. Only in spades and with the full weight of accept/not accept behind us.

As Journals, generically, there should be a required statement signed by all co-equal authors. To the effect that “I understand that despite the foot note about co-equal contribution, this will not be viewed as such by the academic community at large. I recognize that it is not permitted to re-order the author line on my CV or biosketch or website. I have made this decision to accept the author position of my own free will with full understanding of the career consequences.

If you cannot sign onto this behavior you are admitting you are an exploiting jerk who is full willing to lie to mentees and/or your fellow trainees about their best career moves and have nothing but your own** selfish interests at heart.

ps. it is an absolute OUTRAGE that PubMed doesn’t include the symbols. This should be a trivial fix.
*for those who think this is a mere trifle, why does it keep coming up, eh? The websearch hits coming to our older posts on this topic never die down.
**if you are the lab head or listed-first author

A query on mentoring

February 24, 2012

One of the most fundamental roles the mentor plays in the development of a scientist is the introduction to the subfield. Making the trainee known to other scientists who make up the field. Publication is key. Proper crediting during seminars is another. Sending the trainees to meetings and introducing them around to the key players is good too.

As I said, in my view this is fundamental. Inescapable. Science is a human enterprise like any other and therefore interpersonal relationships matter. A lot. Even if they are not supposed to, we are unable to escape our biases related to “knowing” and “not knowing” other people.

My question for you Dear Reader, is whether you were Introduced to a subfield as a trainee. Did your mentor(s) make a specific point to enshroud you in a field? If you are a mentor, do you go out of your way to Introduce your trainees?

(If applicable, feel free to tell me that this is a mark of backwater, BunnyHopper dominated OldBoyzGirlz backslapping subfields and should be rigorously uprooted.)

The Rock Talk blog of the NIH’s Office of Extramural research notes that a report (pdf) overviewing the responses to a prior RFI has just been released.

A few things that I’ve picked up on first skim.

Vote leveraging. They had 219 responses. That’s IT. 5% were from NIH staffe and 20% from official representatives so really that is only 164 comments from normal folk like us. If you responded (and I did) you get to be 0.6% of the response. Coolio. This is why I continue to urge you to participate in such things- apathy means that your efforts count for a lot more than just your own little opinion. You represent a much larger fraction.

Diversity. This particular RFI did not ask specifically about diversity to my recollection. But many people brought it up, no doubt because the Ginther et al 2011 report was published before comments were due. There were also lots of comments about the challenges faced by women who head laboratories.

Staff Scientists / nonPI stable careers. As you know, a topic on which I have opinions, DearReader.

Suppose something like this were made available for career Ph.D. scientists as essentially a fellowship. Without any requirement for a professorial appointment and minimal actual research component. The important point being that it is applied for, awarded to and evaluated for renewal by the career scientist with every expectation that this is a career award. There would be details of course. You’d have to have a host lab at most times- but allow for transition if one lab loses grant support or something. Nice and easy for the supported career scientist to find a new lab, don’t you think? “Hey, PI Smith, I have my salary supported and I’d like to come play in your lab…” would go over quite nicely. Progress could be evaluated just as with any other award, keeping the pressure on for the individual to publish

Well, this new report says:

There was much support among individual commenters to create permanent career staff scientists positions. They saw this as a way for all parties to reap the benefits of training support provided by NIH. Institution commenters where divided, some taking a cautious approach to the idea of utilizing staff scientist in the lab, citing possible adverse effects including potential loss of innovative ideas (currently provided by graduates) and the reduction in project budgets to cover the salaries for these positions.

and ends up with the “NIH Action Recommendation” of

Provide grant mechanisms and change the funding policy to increase project budgets to support the costs associated with permanent staff.

Emphasis added. I will be fascinated to see how closely the eventual initiative on this hews to my proposal. Fascinated.