The realities of academic jobs in this less than perfect world (part2)

Aug 28 2017 Published by under professionalism in science, Uncategorized


Part 2.

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


One of Cathy & postdoc’s complaints is that Dr. Ifix lectures them on what they know and do best: how to write a paper (each of them has many more pubs than he does), how to test a hypothesis, how to organize a lab notebook, how to do a bibliographic search. I’m not saying that we all don’t have stuff to learn and improve on. But this is every lab meeting, every interaction.

Their meta-complaint was that he wastes huge amounts of their time, when they’d rather be getting either different input or be able to just get back to work.

So I asked them both a couple of questions at this point: How much time? Hours a day? Two hours a week? How much of a burden to plaster a smile on your face and sit through it? Is this the difference between a 20 min a day commute and a 40 min a day commute?

Then, why is he doing this? It is likely part of his insecurity. This is His Lab! He is a BigDog! He may be fixing <insert deity of choice here>'s mistakes, but he still doesn’t have that R01. He knows this. He wants an R01. He needs to be not just a triple threat, but an externally validated, successful triple threat. There are other Big Dogs in the hospital with whom he must cope. There are the ultra-big dogs who have a lab of more than 3-5 people. And that’s who he wants to be. And the idea that someone who works FOR him knows more than he does is not something with which (I am guessing) he can easily cope.

So what can you change? What can’t you change? What can you live with? I think a one hour lab meeting and a one hour personal meeting each week is not a lot. Just about everyone has at least that much burden. As a tech/postdoc/res asst prof, there is a place between antagonizing him and being a boot-licking sycophantic toady. The former will, in the short run, make him angry and unpleasant, and in the long run get one fired. The latter will in the sort make one irritable and unhappy, and in the long run get one fired.

So where from here?

But you can’t change his insecurity. You can’t make him respect what you know by insisting, in those meetings: I know this! I AM GOOD at this! and worst of all: I know this better than you. In fact, insisting like that will only make things worse, make him more defensive. No matter what you say about what you can do, he is not going to hear it. You have to speak the language he will hear.

Again: you must speak the language he will hear.

One of the things I was frequently told (by people who had some minor investment or affection for me) when I was working with the chair from hell, was “manage up” and “manage from below”. I had lots of trouble with this, as it felt like I was giving in to his problems. It felt like I was making all the compromise, and it wasn’t meeting half way, but me moving 99% of the way. My thoughts were: I wasn’t wrong, why did I have to do the things that this idiot wanted? It took a while to see that it was again, a case of: do you want this job? If you do, here are the things you must do to keep it, even if it feels like you are going 99%.

And that was a lot of what was going on for Cathy. She was angry and frustrated and not a little contemptuous of this jerk who had the power, but didn’t know the stuff.

Step one was to repeat I want this job. This is not as bad as the alternatives as I see them, as I have chosen them.

So we talked a lot about specific, small things to actually do. Concrete steps.

First, start with papers and weekly meetings. Dr I was not, and is not, going to be in the lab hands on collecting data. Not gonna happen. But he can’t give up enough control to even ask “what was done”, it has to be as if he did it.

My advice: each week, the meetings that happen with Cathy, or various small lab groups (Cathy & postdoc, techs, etc): never show up without a written agenda. Have a piece of paper with 2-4 bullet points. Fewer and it won't be the meeting, more and it will be overwhelming, and he will stray. Write them down, keeping people out of them, and stick to the science/logistics. That is don't assign people to tasks, or stray into areas he considers PI Prerogative. For example:

  • talk about intro for Paper B
  • discuss problem with bunny husbandry (impact on data collection).
  • Hours that the med student is working
  • Results for Paper A

One page, 2-4 lines. Hard copy.

Then, for each bullet point, an additional page (this is knowing that Dr. I likes paper copies of things, if not, this could be electronic). A list of sub-points that pertain to paper B. The premise of paper B, then results, graphs, or maybe a table. If you can work in the NIH words (premise, justification, innovation) do so. He'll see this. He'll get it. Not more than a page, laid out with sufficient white space and color coding and the works. At least 12 pt, if not 14. A copy for Dr I, and for every person in the room. Let him mark it up, and you add what he says to your copy.

For the husbandry problem it could look like:

  • Baby rabbits are being born dead
  • We got vet to autopsy, there is X problem (include picture of lung tissue?)
  • Solutions for this are:
    • increase humidity (upside: easy, downside: least likely to help)
    • change food (upside: easy, downside: expensive)
    • drug YYY (upside: most likely to work, downside: very very expensive for this many bunnies)

In short, manage the meeting to be about content. You can determine the content. Unlike the chair from hell, Dr Ifix didn’t need to talk about himself, he could stay on topic. And if he did wander, and did start lecturing on the difference between the materials section and the methods section, then let him do it. And do not let your body language say otherwise. Do not, as I mistakenly did, abruptly bring the discussion back to content. If you can ask a genuine question that redirects, do so. Dr. Ifix is not stupid, if you act or speak as if you think he is an ass, he will know that. And then you lose.   

If Dr. Ifix becomes angry or irritated or caustic or any of his other responses, you've lost. Period. Repeat after me: you are not going to win a fight with this man. If that feels like too much compromise, or too much giving-in, then maybe you don't want this job that much. I am not saying you have to sit on your pride, that you have to be subservient, that you have to be submissive. But confrontational will not work with this person.

This reminds of something from one of those leadership classes I once took, where they classified people (which is another set of objectionables, but here, it's a bit useful). One kind of person was "military". Military minded people have superior officers, to whom one listens and obeys, and grunts, whose job it is to listen to and obey you. While academic/hospital medicine is changing, there are still lots of people with this mindset. Such people are not interested in discussions. They are interested in having their orders carried out.

And as you work towards managing the meetings, start managing the manuscripts. Yes, Dr Ifix thinks he can write better than the postdoc. Develop a calendar for writing. Outline by this date, Intro by that one. Ask him to assign people to schedule. You can ask “may I do this part?” or even “I’ll do this part”. Focus on the writing, the paper, the content.  Make it clear that you are interested in the job. It may be clear to you, but you need to make it clear to him.

Now, in Cathy’s experience, this presented another problem. Dr Ifix  wouldn’t let anyone else do a first draft. And this became an issue because he wouldn’t get it done either.

On to part 3....

12 responses so far

  • wally says:

    I worked in an academic medicine department for a few years before finishing my PhD, and in my experience, sometimes those lectures about things I know already are due to a lack of sleep and a need to fill the air with something. It's easier to just launch into a lecture due to exhaustion - and MDs aren't really used to dead space (like giving time for people to ask questions or opine). I can't even count the number of times I was lectured about things I knew already. Some of it is busy-ness too and not necessarily being able to remember what has been discussed or what needs to be discussed, and so - again - it is easier to launch into a lecture. Managing MDs is rough - and your advice about the agenda is very very good.

  • respisci says:

    When I was working in industry, one of my supervisors warned me of when working with physicians we have to understand that they function by making a diagnosis and then proposing a treatment. Their mantra is to be quick, decisive and take action. In contrast, as scientists our training is to step back, gather information, think and then plan the action. Currently I work in academia with a supervisor who is a physician. I present projects in terms of actions to be done rather than "let us discuss a concept and ponder different avenues of approach" It requires more effort on my part in planning for the meetings but I understand that years of training have left their mark on the physician's thought patterns and I am not about to undo those years of training.

  • Anon says:

    "As a tech/postdoc/res asst prof, there is a place between antagonizing him and being a boot-licking sycophantic toady."

    I'm not sure that place exists. Not with someone like Ifix, anyhow. Because the real problem is, as you say, that "the idea that someone who works FOR him knows more than he does is not something with which (I am guessing) he can easily cope." No amount of "managing up" will obscure this fact. I suspect that he resents Cathy and the other postdocs not for anything they do or don't do -- they are likely already bending over backwards to accommodate him -- but for that basic fact: they know more about certain things than he does.

    Long term, I fear for the security of Cathy's job, not only because Dr Ifix may not be able to get an R01, but also because there will surely come a point when he can no longer cope with having postdocs in his lab that know more than he.

    Sure, everyone needs to decide for themselves what they are willing to put up with and how far is too far to compromise. But if this were my former trainee, I would be asking her, what, exactly are you getting from this position that you couldn't get somewhere else?

    A postdoc is not and should never be looked upon as an end within itself. If Cathy is unable or uninterested in making the leap to PI after 5+ years of postdocing, it might be time for her to implement Plan B.

    Sometimes we need other people to shake us out of our complacency and help us see the world as it really is, and not as we would like it to be.

    • potnia theron says:

      thanks for thinking about this. I started to write a reply, but it turned into another, long post. Will be up tomorrow, after checking in with Cathy.

  • Sam says:

    Great points anon.

    Also, "Sometimes we need other people to shake us out of our complacency and help us see the world as it really is, and not as we would like it to be." was a big one for me, (still is) but how does one thread the needle? I have had good examples of this in a sea of bad examples of people advising along these lines - people like Dr. Ifix LOVE dropping some tough love on people - it's usually self-promoting crap.

    • potnia theron says:

      Two bits of answer to this:
      Bit 1: see part 3. This may be true for some people. But it ignores the reality of people like Cathy, who I do not perceive as "complacent". She is anything but, and has spent the time figuring out what she wants. Perhaps it is my writing that is insufficiently clear on this point.

      Bit 2: I think that Anon and Sam, and others do not see themselves as Cathy. Which is fine, and which is the way of the world. There are different people in different places. And those people will take different things from these posts.

      And Sam's question, so aptly worded, about threading the needle? That is another, and valid, problem. And another post.

      • Anon says:

        "I think that Anon and Sam, and others do not see themselves as Cathy...."

        Yeah, no. It is precisely because I *was* Cathy, right down to the age, Ifix, etc., that I wrote what I wrote. I had a very good mentor who made me seriously question a lot of the things that I was taking for granted.

        I wish Cathy well. But maybe her problem will resolve itself on its own. My lab shut down 3 years after I left. I am in a position now that I never thought I'd find fulfilling (while I worked at the lab), but it turns out I couldn't have been more wrong.

    • Anon says:

      I think the source is key, Sam. You have to be really careful both when you listen to and give this type of advice. To offer it, you have to know the person *very* well. And to accept it, you have to be confident that it really does come from love.

    • Sam says:

      Actually, I was a non-TT scientist for a while and had a lot of similar issues.

      Things changes and I'm TT, recently T, with my own lab, but it was a set of unlikely events that got me here. As a staff scientist in an academic lab in a clinical dept., I definitely tried developing as an independent scientist and I wish I had things like these posts to make me go about it in a more thoughtful way. I ended up in a really happy place, but there were a lot of times where things broke my way - any one of them could have went the other way and I'm not sure where I'd be now. And if I wasn't a white guy I doubt I'd have had the opportunity, especially considering what my current dept. was when they hired me.

      With as few traditional faculty spots available, we REALLY need stable, non-PI positions for scientists. I was glad to have one of those rare birds, but it wasn't working for the long term for me - my "replacement" (we still keep in touch) has been there now for almost 10 years.

  • Joe says:

    An interesting follow-up. Now, I would love to hear whether you have had experiences with the opposites of "Dr. Ifix" or "chair from hell". What I mean is kind of a "Dr. anything goes", i.e. a brilliant scientist but with total absence of leadership, lack of plans, little mentoring, etc. These are also tough people to work with as a junior.

    • potnia theron says:

      Yes, my PhD mentor was not particularly involved, but was very upfront about it, and made it clear that he had little time for anyone. I think this was far more the norm back in the days before IDPs, etc. There is going to be no perfect situation. And a good mentor for one person may be a lousy one for someone else, depending on the needs of the trainee. The important thing for the trainee, I believe, is to be clear about one's needs, and what kind of person compliments your work style. And then, if where it doesn't match up, how to cope.

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