I can't get funded without ....

Feb 09 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This logical fallacy showed up on the tweets the other day. I can't get funded without publishing more. But I can't publish till I collect more data. And I can't collect more data till I have grad students/money for experiments/time bought out of teaching. And I can't do any of these things without a grant.

There is truth in each of those lines. Except the last one. And maybe parts of all the middle ones.

When I was a grub, not tenured, in a whole biology dept, in an A&S college (ie not med school), there was a more senior guy who moaned about this all the fucking time. He was  tenured, but had been an ass prof for a while. I understand he is about to retire, 20 years later, still an ass prof (no gloating, Potnia). Back in the day fo 30%tile funding levels, he couldn't get funded. (well, someone had to be in the 70%).

Ass prof and I had a ... voluble .. disagreement about what was possible.  I said that even if everyone took everything away from me but my 386 IBM PC (don't ask, and I wont tell), I would still be able to publish. If I had no students, no lab, no tech. I had enough data to put out something. Not great things. Not the the things that interested me the most, but things. Things that could be reasonable publishable paper. He was convinced the system was stacked against him, and that I, a younger faculty, got all the perks and benefits.

As a side, historical note, it totally frosted my shorts at the time that this ass was going to vote on my tenure. He was convinced that I had succeeded because I got breaks as a woman (hahahaha) and being young (double hahahahaha). He did vote yes in the end; I was scary back then, too (my record had little to do with the vote, such was life when the greatest generation ruled).

I could publish in part, because I had done a postdoc, which was relatively rare in my field. In those days, in those fields, one could get a job straight from ones PhD, no postdoc. But I argued then, and now, that a good postdoc is like the last trimester of pre-natal development. All the bits and pieces and systems are in place and functional. What the fetus does is put on weight. Preemies can live, but they struggle. Full term babies are fat and happy and have acquired enough data to carry them through some lean times. Till the lab is going. Till the NIH spigot turns on.

A good scientist needs to have a bit of contingency in their back  pocket. A smattering of data, an idea, a set of simulations that just need to be run about 1000000 times. Going up for tenure with 3 or 4 years of no pubs is Not A Good Thing (see Maria stories...).

So yeah, having a grant makes life a lot better. It buys one the ability to do the really cool stuff (not to mention the breathing space not write another grant for a year or three).

But if your tenure committee/mentoring committee/department chair says "you need to publish more, we appreciate that you've gotten a credible proposal in each deadline, but please, get something out", listen.

10 responses so far

  • scitrigrrl says:

    Thank you.

    Actually, it's a relief to be told this from multiple people in multiple places (including mentors in my department). Knowing where to focus effort takes the pressure off trying to do EVERYTHING ALL AT THE SAME TIME which is... not so helpful.

  • B. Kiddo says:

    Yes! Not having tenure is incredibly stressful and that alone can really shut people down. But getting a TT job is at it's core a contract to write papers. Teaching matters, grants matter more, but in the end, it is possible to do OK without those pieces. It is impossible without papers.

    The _only_ cases I've seen go south in mid-ranked universities (e.g. not Ivy, but fairly major research Us) are cases where the person is too paralyzed to write. Other reasons I hear that colleagues don't write are that the current job required a change of topic. Most people do change topics to some degree. Who works on what they did their PhD on? Very few, I think. There should still be papers to write. Review articles if nothing else. Just write. Don't worry about it being the be all and end all. Just write.

    • potnia theron says:

      yes... when in doubt publish. And more than review papers... that's what a good Postdoc does, stock up the data for the future.

      It is easier to get tenure with lots of pubs and no money, than with lots of money and no pubs.

  • enni says:

    For those who did stock up data as a postdoc, any advice on navigating authorship issues with previous advisor? Let's assume the data was collected in the postdoc lab. The newbie PI designed and led the work but the former advisor provided key resources.

    Note: At my institution, papers co-authored with a former advisor are not counted in tenure considerations, even if the asst prof is the senior/corresponding author.

    • B. Kiddo says:

      Enni,
      I think it's completely whacky that co-authored papers with former advisor are not considered. That is just absolutely absurd. In the long run, that policy should be changed (e.g. once you have tenure).

      In the short run, explain that situation to former advisor, and try to get at least one pub w/o them. V. delicate conversation, I know. Can acknowledge their grant at least.

      At my U, papers from older data count somewhat less, but do count. And in reality the 'count less' comes up if they're the ONLY papers someone publishes. Old and new, continuous productivity is what's key. I can't imagine that in the first few years prior to having new data your institution wouldn't count papers at all.... I believe you, it's just so wrong.

      • newbie PI says:

        I've been in the same situation. My university also does not give full credit for papers with former advisors. My former advisor had a change of heart about letting me publish some work on my own once it was all written up and had a good chance of getting into a good journal. At first I was annoyed and upset, but when I really thought about it, isn't it unethical to ask them NOT to be on the paper? It's a dishonest portrayal of the "who and where" of the work to your field and to your university.

        BTW, I totally agree that this policy of not counting papers published with former mentors is totally ridiculous. Who better to collaborate with than established leaders in your field who have a vested interest in your success? Also, the chair of our departmental tenure committee told me that even though the publication may not officially count, that in reality it still does. As long as it's part of a complete body of work from your lab, it will be considered when examining your overall productivity.

  • Enni says:

    Thanks for chiming in fellow newbie. I have a good relationship with my former mentor and I also feel that it would be unethical if he were NOT included as an author. But the system does seem to reward those who would go ahead and publish independently.

    "Better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission" is some of the first advice I heard as a female student trainee in a predominantly male field. I've seen several male postdocs leave the lab and keep key data hidden until they were independent faculty. In part, I was trying to gauge whether senior faculty actually EXPECT their trainees to do this--- squirrel away data and publish it independently after striking out on their own.

  • […] other things, but here I’m going to defer to my faculty mentors (and the wonderful @pottytheron here) and prioritize papers. Papers over grants. Papers and grants over service.  I have data, I’ve […]

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