The realities of academic jobs in this less than perfect world

Aug 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A former postdoc, let’s call her Cathy, had ulterior motives, and invited me to come give a talk where she is now a research assistant prof (i.e, non-tenure track). She is in a hospital, not even a medical school, but one with a large research portfolio.

Cathy is bright and hard working. The time she was in my lab was successful for both of us, but more than five years ago. She left my lab for this job, even though I had money for a longer time, largely because of family and circumstance. I understood why she made the choice she did, and supported her. We’ve published a couple of things since then, and have stayed friends.

Five years into the new job, She still loves the specific science, and her position is less secure than tenured, but given her successes more secure than just another postdoc. But, but, but …

She is essentially a junior faculty in someone else’s lab. She is not The PI, or really a PI at all. The PI is a surgeon (danger Will Robinson) who actually has several different Important Things to do, including being a surgeon and division director and head of a research entity within the larger complex.

So Cathy invited me to visit and give a Big Important Talk and as a side effect, impress the heck out of Dr. I-fix-the-mistakes-that God-Makes. Unfortunately, Dr. Ifix was called into emergency surgery to save a life and didn’t make it to my talk. I did have a chance for a private meeting with him, but lots of time to talk with Cathy and another postdoc in the lab who wanted mentoring and advice.

The situation is a hard one. Dr. Ifix has a large ego. Dr. Ifix doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He got a senior-ish K award, whilst faculty and now thinks he knows grantsmanship. He didn’t do a research fellowship, and has done some research, and has had some mentoring. But Cathy has more publications, experience, and the research chops. He just can't accept that.

There are lots of ways in which this makes for problems for Cathy. She’d be happy to be left alone and do the research, which is interesting, and challenging and all she needs. But, funding rears its ugly head, and Dr Ifix has yet to score an R01.

She showed me the proposal they sent in, and there were problems I could see off the bat. For example, a list of definitions of stuff like “rabbit” and “hopping” as part of Significance. There is a figure at the top of the Specific Aims, a figure that demonstrates a simple process that first year med students master. He thought R01's were 6 pages, and she kept saying, no they are 12, but he didn't believe her till the end. Then, he wrote about 3 pages of extra experiments the night before.

The complaint of Cathy & postdoc was that they can’t just write the proposals, do the work. Dr Ifix believes he knows better, and needs to manage everything and doesn’t have the time to do it, even if his ego wasn’t getting in the way of understanding what is good and fundable and publishable here.

So when talking with Cathy & postdoc, I started at the beginning: do you want this position? “There is no magic bullet that will turn Dr I fix into the mentor you want to have” I said. “Given who he is, do you want to stay here? Or is what you really want is to look for another position?”

That’s an important place to start. When things are not good, and there are limits on the fixability of the situation, ask yourself: do I want to bitch and moan, do I want to make it better, or do I need to move on? It's a cost benefit analysis.

Postdoc will move on. Inevitably. But Cathy can look at the situation, which involves a spouse with a not-movable job, children, and salary reality and local alternatives.

Then the next step is to understand what can change and what cannot change. This guy is not going to wake up and say: I have not appreciated you, and I am sorry and I am going to become a really good person and start really mentoring you today. In fact, if there are problems, Dr I fix is going to blame Cathy before he looks at himself. (contrary to what the song says). Getting angry, pointing out his mistakes, will have less than zero effect. It will only make Dr I fix angry and unhappy. If he puts a figure of a basic concept (hopping is up and down) in the middle of the specific aims page, and cannot hear that 1) this is a waste of space 2) irritating if not insulting to reviewers and 3) not some great and novel idea he has that will change grant writing ForEver, he is not going to hear anything about authorship, content, or things that Cathy actually knows and does well.

These are the problems. Are there pluses? Yes. In some ways Dr Ifix is not a bad guy. When Cathy has kid issues, its fine to come late, leave early. He thinks being a Mom is good, and admires her work ethic. The salary is good. Cathy perceives this, and was quite insightful at understanding what is good and what is bad.

Cathy, here, and each person in a similar situation, has to make the decision about where the point when you have to say “enough” is. So the first question is: are you there? Do you want to keep this job, if this is the best you can do, in the situation? Can I  tolerate this?

If yes, then you look at working with Dr Ifix as part of the job, like a long commute, living in a less than perfect community, a small apartment in a big city. The next step becomes: what can be made better? what can't? How do I preserve my sanity?

There are two next points. One, the general point about compromise, reality and not being either a superhero or an angst-filled YA protagonist who Fights the Establishment. The other is the more specific points that Cathy & I & postdoc discussed on how to make her situation work.

And those my friends, will be the next posts.

7 responses so far

  • Microscientist says:

    This situation is far too common. In fact it's giving me flashbacks to my first post-doc, with Dr. Napoleon. While not a surgeon, he was an MD, the head of a new and shiny Institute, and convinced that he knew all and knew best. I was the female post-doc who dared to disagree with him on scientific matters. It did not go well. Since I was a post-doc after one year it was relatively easy for me to leave for better, and more supportive waters.
    Luckily, it sounds like your friends situation sounds slightly better, as you mention caring qualities that Dr. Napoleon did not have. I'm be actively reading your suggestions, to see how they line up with mine.

  • potnia theron says:

    Part of what I find difficult (and I will return to) is that not everyone has the flexibility to leave, as did you and I.
    There are lots of Dr. N's and Dr. I's out there.
    And make no mistake: leaving will only prompt the responses I used to hear from the Chair from Hell: this person was a dilatant and wasn't really material. These guys have no self-reflection. Yet, sometimes this is the best a person can do. Real life is full of hard decisions.

  • Morgan Price says:

    I got the impression that Cathy is considering staying for an extended period, but if she has
    a solid salary and Dr. I Fix is not good at writing R01's then is that realistic?

  • […] Part 1 is here. Probably reading part 1 first will help you understand the cast of characters. […]

  • Ola says:

    A similar thing happened in my first faculty position. Basic researcher in a clinical department, with a chair (MD) who had done some research 25 years ago and therefore felt entitled to name themselves God's gift to scienceTM. It was seriously disruptive. Dude would show up to lab meetings and ask ridiculous questions, resulting in lab meeting lasting 3 hours instead of 1. He would also request to read and comment on all outgoing papers (altho' thankfully not ask to be an author).

    The silver lining is that when someone is an PITA in the research arena, they're probably an PITA in other parts of their job and life too. The solution turned out to be surprisingly simple - just wait it out! The guy was gone in 3 years, ostensibly for pissing-off everyone on the clinical side of things. In Cathy's case, she may find she has allies elsewhere in the department, who may be more empowered to speak out and make life difficult for Dr. Ifix. In my limited experience, once clinicians start whining about something, it gets fixed relatively quickly because then the cash-cow is at stake.

  • […] from Cathy: (see here to learn who Cathy is). Some small editing to remove identifications. The rest in quotes are her […]

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