Insecurity, Postdoctoral Fellows, and Success as a Junior Faculty

Sep 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

InBabyAttachMode, a whose tweets and blog posts I've enjoyed for a while now, has recently decided to leave academia for industry. She has a new post up explaining why.  A post she claims "might be ranty, angry and disillusioned". I don't think so. It is valid and heartfelt and talks about some of the very real problems in academic science a career, particularly for the homogametes with parasites (ie mothers). I think many of her concerns apply possibly even more so to URMs and people with disabilities or physical challenges.

Thinking about this brought up a  problem I had many years ago, when NIH was not "in crisis". [Note this person is NOT AT ALL like InBabyAttachMode!]. Although to be honest, even when it wasn't in crisis, relative to today's funding levels, when I was a junior faculty, it always felt like crisis. It always felt like it was 1 grant away from disaster. As a junior faculty, you can't help everyone. You can't always see where the train is going, and how close you are to crashing.

I had a wonderful postdoc. She was smart. There was sufficient evidence that she was hardworking. I liked her as a person, and felt she was honest and upfront about issues. She had had a disastrous postdoc, with someone I knew, and counted as a sort-of-friend. Her story and explanation of the disaster rang honest to me, and I felt I perceived both sides of the story about commitment and mentoring and why the situation had gone bad.

She came to my lab and things went well. I had a paper from a symposium I had given right when she joined the lab (or I would have let her give it), that was in her interest and gave it to her to write up. It got submitted and published. And then little problems started. She had problems with others in the lab, most of which were worked out. The first project she took on was with an outside collaborator, and it ran into major personality conflicts. She was in the right, I felt, but she let it get so out of hand we never got more than one set of experiments done. That would be a publication, but she never got that pub done. She moved to another project (my suggestion) that was on another collaborative project, slightly off of my mainstream, and got on another training grant to do that work. She didn't get anything published out of that either. So, things weren't perfect, but I was still working with her, and hopeful about publications. We'd set deadlines and they would come and go. I still believed in her.

Then came The Big Problem. She had 3 years on the training grant. In my experience, if you could make a could argument for extending the T32 to a 4th year it was nearly always granted. Evidently that policy had changed at the IC funding this T32, and her request was denied. At this point I knocked myself out to find funding. She was not willing to work on my mainstream research, although I had funding for that (which she said didn't interest her). She called a previous mentor (who was a friend of mine from post-doc days) who laid down the law to her: you haven't published, you don't have anything to show for the last 5 years (this postdoc and the other). If you want to make it academia, you need to produce. I thought I had been saying this to her, but she had not heard me say it (fault not assigned here).

I got her interviews, at our institution for other PD positions, I talked to 3-4 other potential (funded) mentors in things closer to her new interest. All of them talked to her, and said to me "nope, too high risk for me" or "I asked her to follow up on this that or the other, and she didn't". At this point the postdoc got very very angry at me. Why didn't I know that it would be only three years? Why couldn't I just give her my grant money to do the things she wanted? I even found a job for her, a teaching job, as a res. ast. prof, but she declined to move, which is a fair decision. But her anger was huge. She complained about some of the things that IBAM mentions in her post. The insecurity. The lack of support for mothers. The lack of autonomy, because she was clearly ready to be a professor. The small salary. The fact that everyone was prejudiced against her. But mostly that I had failed to provide for her.

I had spent a huge amount of time trying to help. Yes I could have put her on my R01, but it would mean that I couldn't do the work involved, even if I lied to NIH about what the money was used for, which I was not going to do. In my view,  she had multiple opportunities which she turned down. I came away feeling with I was dealing with someone who felt entitled to the job, but hadn't produced what she needed to.

As my brilliant friend, Teh Chemist sez: Everyone is the hero of their own story.




10 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    Seems this person just didn't know what she needed to do to be successful. Or, she knew, and didn't care. For example, when you have crashed and burned on one or two projects as a post-doc and someone offers you the chance to recover with a funded project that is well established, you should jump at it, regardless of how close to your 'interests' it is (I'm assuming we are not talking about different fields, of course). You should suck it up, accept that you might need more guidance than you thought, and get on with it. That is if you want to meet the minimum requirements to progress beyond a post-doc. If you don't, and you want to live in a perfect world where someone gives you money to pursue your dream project, irrespective of whether it produces or not, then you're in the wrong game.

    Five years and no papers is irrecoverable with the only exception being a major glamor pub at the end.

  • Ola says:

    You have way more patience than me!

    I once caught a post-doc' with an entire drawer of equipment for a side project that had been ordered off of my grant in collusion with the tech' (couple thousand $ worth). Boom! Equipment shared out to everyone else in the lab! Side project dead. Pissed off post-doc', glad not to be fired. Wanna be a snowflake? Not on my dollar!

    At the point someone working for / training with me says "I will not work on that because it does not interest me", they will no longer be employed / trained. They can express disinterest, and then we have to work through it to get them interested again. If they're not interested in being interested, out the door they go. There is no room in our less-than modular budgets for everyone to have their own little pet side project or to pick-and-choose what they feel like working on that day. Everyone in the lab knows where the money comes from, they all understand the ass-busting time I spend trying to keep us funded, they're not shielded from the pains of financially managing a lab. When one person in a group like this becomes selfish, it affects the whole group's ability to function.

    Science is a team sport. I'm the team leader. I pick the team. Primadonnas are not welcome. Play for the good of the whole team or get out. When the team wins we all share in the winnings. All the data from every experiment is mandated to be kept on a shared lab drive for everyone to see. Like the first example, when I see data being hidden, it gets deleted. Who cares if it took you 3 weeks to collect? Share properly or get out. This is kindergarten level behavior training. As Vonnegut said, "God damn it you've got to be kind!"

    It sounds like the person you're referring to is more interested in themselves, rather than the good of the team. I don't know how you professional snowflake-nourisher PIs do it . I would have wanted to stab this person in the eye with a glass pipette.

  • DJMH says:

    Ola I was with you until "At the point someone working for / training with me says "I will not work on that because it does not interest me", they will no longer be employed / trained."

    Whoa, what? A person in your lab might think one of the things you're working on is an intellectual dead-end, and they explain to you they don't want to work on it because it isn't their thing, and you plan to FIRE them?

    You don't have trainees, you have data servants. And that's great for you, but a shitty deal for them. I hope they have fair warning before joining your lab, that it's not going to be a chance for intellectual development.

  • GMP says:

    I must share a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to Ola's comment, because one of my colleagues of whom I secretly think as the advisor where careers go to die insists on this "we are a team" approach. In his implementation, that means the postdoc does not get to have first author papers but gets to be second or third on a whole bunch of grad student papers. For the money he has raised and the size of the group that he has, he has yet to produce a single professor.

    I think students/postdocs and we as advisors have to be sensitive to the fact that while science is a team effort, everyone gets hired/fired/has to pay rent and groceries on his/her own. So I can't begrudge people for looking out for themselves as long as they are not being douches about it (or stealing like in Ola's example), and in fact I should look out for them too. There has to be and can definitely be a good balance between being part of the team and getting a good solid CV with clear individual accomplishments; they are not diametrically opposite, as my least favorite colleague would like us to believe.

    Having said that... Potnia's postdoc is an example of a delusional drama queen, and someone who obviously did not have what it took but imagined they did. I was recently contacted by a person I knew from grad school (note: I have been a prof for 10 years) who has just finished his PhD just now, after fits and starts and switching institutions, and he fully expects to be on the professorial track. It's so misguided it's not even funny...

    Btw, I wish Potnia's entitled postdoc who didn't have what it took weren't female. Plenty of women who do have what it takes are constantly plagued by doubts that they are not good enough, and others are happy to doubt them as well. Every example of an entitled prat who happens to be female unfortunately serves to solidify the beliefs of the many who think women generally don't really belong in science.

    Like this

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ola- do you put them in the stocks for three days every time you catch one straying from the path of righteousness? Or are they whipped on the quad?

  • Established PI says:

    The postdoc in this post was obviously particularly problematic. But she suffers from a broader malaise I have observed, namely passivity. Some (many?) postdocs don't make the successful transition from graduate school and act as if there will be a deus ex machina that will swoop in and guide them through every step of their career. They don't get that the transition from postdoc to a paying job is way harder than the transition from grad school to post doc and that, most importantly, their fate is ultimately in their own hands. I don't think this is a new phenomenon - I can remember postdocs bitching and moaning about their mean old advisors more than two decades ago, yet they themselves were doing very little about changing their situation in the lab (or seeking another lab). The difference now is that it is harder to do everything - get grants, publish, find a position (especially an academic one) - so the system is way less forgiving. Postdocs need to understand from day 1 that they need to be masters of their own career paths (and work bloody hard at it) or they are doomed to multiple postdoc positions with no good job prospects.

  • mistressoftheanimals says:

    Did you read the last line of the post? Did you think that I don't believe it doesn't apply to me?

    As for Glamour Pubs - my position has been very clear here, and very clear in the lab. I don't do glamour work - mostly because my subdiscipline just isn't that sexy. The postdoc knew this.

    While you, and everyone else (nearly) reading this can't know how I run my lab, I think that after a couple of years of blogging, my philosophy has come through pretty clearly.

    This post wasn't about the postdoc as much as it was about how damn hard it is to know when to throw someone out of your lab.

  • Ola, you sound like a total fucken asshole, a horrible PI to work with, and someone whose research program is going to turn to shitte. Maybe this is because you have never successfully recruited creative, driven, talented trainees to your lab? Because the brightest young scientists with the most promise for actually kickeing asse in the lab and generating new directions the PI never would have thought of are never gonna want to work in a fucken hellhole like your lab sounds like.

  • mistressoftheanimals says:

    As is frequently true, there is a place between being an ass-hole and the whole thing is a team sport, and letting people run wild in one's lab.

    There needs to be room for side projects, side ideas, etc. On the other if there is a grant, with Stuff That Must Get Done, then trainees can't just go off on their own, doing whatever they please.

    One problem is that one trainee goes off, ignores the main mission/direction and other trainees end up picking up the work that needs to get done. Or, in a small lab, with one postdoc and tech, that nothing gets done.

    Part of being a grown-up is being able to find the right balance, letting trainees explore new stuff, but getting enough done for publication and renewal.

  • […] have frequently written about problems with trainees and what to do about Problem […]

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