Archive for the 'professionalism in science' category

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

Managing People

Jan 23 2017 Published by under professionalism in science, Uncategorized

I saw a tweet about how illness shouldn't impact on PhD funding. It shouldn't.

But here's the conundrum. Let's look at Asst. Prof Young Scientst. Prof Young is about 3-4 years into her first job at some MRU. The joy and exuberance of Having A Job has receded into a haze of teaching and committee assignments and unsuccessful grant applications.

Prof Young has had a couple of meetings with her mentoring committee and the tenure advising committee. They think she's doing just great, for now. But, they remind her that 1) she needs to increase her publications and 2) she needs funding. She knows, and it's tough but feasible. She's on the right track, and it seems in her grasp.

Prof Young is nearing the end of her seed money, but she's been pretty wise and has enough to run the experiments she needs. The last proposal review was enthusiastic, but required more data to support the premise of the proposal. What Prof Young doesn't have money for is bodies. She's had a tech, and has enough money to support the Tech for maybe another 6 months to a year. She had a grad student, but the student left her lab for another lab. So it's her and the Tech. Maybe another grad student will come her way, maybe an undergrad. But she can't count on that.

Prof Young is a right-thinking person, of good intent and action. She had a discussion, several, with the Tech about what's ahead. She's explained the experiments that need to be done for the next grant deadline. So, when trouble comes, it is hard. Very hard. The Tech has an issue. Maybe a seriously ill child. Maybe he's ill, or maybe she's pregnant. Independent of gender, the Tech is asking for time off. Maybe it's only exactly what the Tech has earned. Maybe it's for more than that ("can I borrow against the future?"). Certainly, the Tech can't stay late to finish a running-over experiment. Or come in on weekends. In fact, the Tech now needs to leave early. Often.

Let's be clear the Tech is good. Responsible. Prof Young has watched techs be taken for granted, or even abused, and vowed not to ever be that person. Maybe there isn't enough money or time to hire and train a new tech. Maybe its just the leave to which the tech is entitled, with no extra problems attached.

But Prof Young is looking hard at a grant deadline in three months. Experiments that the reviews were explicit were needed. Skip a cycle? What if its NSF and once a year (some NSF directorates are, now)? What if Prof Young is looking at a mechanism that has an age deadline, and she's coming hard on that limit? Without a grant she will be out of funds for the tech, whose salary she is going to have to keep paying with what little is left of seed money.

What does Prof Young do? I think there are some creative solutions, but, dear gentle readers, please weigh in. I'm curious as to what you think.


31 responses so far

Paying for your science - OPM

I just read the original post that prompted a set of tweets that in turn prompted this one from me. Dr. Edward Hind is a postdoc who has spent a lot of his own money doing science. He's also someone who left a more lucrative career to do science. This says he is someone who has looked at the options and made a choice, choosing something he wants that produces less income.

I think the problems, nay implications to the field,  for paying for your own science are significant.  It begins to sound like an initiation fee. Or a system in which one can buy their way to the top. It may exclude people from the lower socioeconomic end of life, and make it much tougher for those in the middle.

But totally unaddressed in Edd's column is who can, let alone the slippery concept of should, pay for these "extras" (which aren't really extra) and where is the money going to come from?

I'm an olde farte. I've been faculty in a variety of departments. They all had money issues. They all had budget shortfall issues. Even the "rich" clinical department had money issues. While that department generated squillions of $$ in clinical income, the med school imposed a "tax" on the clinical departments, in the form of "if you do not bring in X$ in grant overhead, the amount we consider appropriate for your size, you need to give us the difference from your clinical income". Follow the logic and you can feel the leadership being squeezed. Actually, they just made the calculations as to the cost of research faculty and decided on the optimal (in their view) balance of faculty that generated income, and cost them money.

In A&S college departments the budgets were a joke. There is no money in those budgets to cover much of anything, including paper clips and pens, let alone meetings and publishing. When Xeroxing no longer was an issue because of teh interwebtubes, the pathetic allotment for teaching copying disappeared. The A&S Biology department I was in had a small endowment dedicated to graduate students. There were frequent debates as to whether that money should support grad students so they didn't have to teach in the summer and could do field work or whether it should send students to meetings or buy supplies so they could do research. The latter is important in a department where students are their own PI's and not working on their advisor's project.

And there's the problem. What should limited money be spent on? Yup, we pay for professional stuff. But who else should pay for it? The departments? They are making hard decisions about seed money for new hires, money to support grad student research, and how to support junior faculty who didn't get funded at N-3 years counting to tenure, but with a little more money might get enough papers out to get funded next round. They are debating spending money to hire someone to cover teaching (like the postdoc in the department who didn't get a job) for the dude going on sabbatical, so that somebody else doesn't double their teaching load to cover a critical course.

So, you say, the departments should ask for money from the College? Departments are doing this All The Fucking Time. And when they get the money, we just go back to the problems in the paragraph above. The colleges should dictate how the money they give to departments is spent, and  demand that the departments cover the extra costs of everyone from students through postdocs and faculty? Let me tell you how far that would get. Department budgets may be pitiful, but its one of the few tools a chair, a well meaning, hard working chair has to effect change. They are not going to be happy to accept either funded or unfunded mandates from above. This is independent of whether you think that covering a postdoc's meeting costs is a useful and optimal use of any extra money.

Now, Colleges have lots of money, you say. Tuition is going up. But where is that tuition money going? There is a lot of debate about what college budgets are  covering. I've not seen a single clear answer that explains what is happening. I do know that administrative staffing has risen far faster than academic staffing. But plush presidential suites and salaries don't really account for differences in college/university income. There are lots of things colleges spend money. Should they be going to central administration and asking for money? Colleges are doing this All The Fucking Time. Run through the argument above, but with  slightly higher numbers and change "department" to "college" and "college" to "central admin". Do you think Deans would be any more enthusiastic about unfunded mandates on their budgets than chairs? If so, you don't know any Deans. And they are far smoother, by and large, than chairs at arguing their way around budgets.

My current department (basic science in a medical school) has the same concerns and issues. I know some because my current chair (may his health and good attitude last for a very long time) is open and has discussed much of the issues with the faculty. He gives each faculty member an allotment for meetings, memberships and the like. Its on the order of $1000. This year, I spent my money sending two trainees to a national meeting airfare and registration. Yup, I kicked in the rest for them out of my pocket. I didn't go, but if I had I would have paid myself.

Do I want my chair to put in more money to this fund? Nope. This is not an MRU, but an almost MRU. We are not the first choice for really good young people looking for a tenure track job. We've had people scooped out from under us by MRU's that offer 30-60% more seed, even when we meet the request of the candidate. My department has a choice to make: what do we support with the limited money that we can allot? Its a hard decision. We make one choice, and actually some of the faculty don't agree (especially when the hire is in another area than their own). But what investment, and that's what this money is, an investment in the future of the department is going to maximize the life and careers and future of all the constituents? That is not an easy question to answer.

The bottom line comes down to something simple from Econ 101: there are unlimited needs, desires, wants, and limited resources with which to fill those needs. I too would love it someone gave me $20K year to pay for publication and meetings and students and taxis. But I want really good junior faculty in the department more than I want those things.

OPM? Other People's Money - what should pay for all the things we want.

4 responses so far

More on Meetings

Morgan Price's Comment that I blogged on the other day about going to meetings had the following parenthetical end bit:

(Do I not get it because I don’t like going to meetings?)

Lots of people have talked about why go to meetings, and what's hard about them. The upshot was, learn to like going to meetings. Lots of good stuff. DM (natch) had something important to say:

drugmonkey : I think it also takes some time in the field for meetings to become less uncomfortable. The longer you've been going to the meeting(s) with the same old crowd, the more likely to have old friends swing by your poster, to see people in the coffee line to chat up, to go out to eat with. You are more comfortable getting up to make a comment at the microphone, to grab the person in the hallway to discuss your / their data and folks from the platform call you out when they know you can answer a question better than they can.

It's a bit self-reinforcing. Here's the logic: I am uncomfortable at meetings. So I don't like going. But when I do I'm even more uncomfortable so I don't see that I get anything out of them but feeling inadequate in whatever way. So I don't like meetings even more than I didn't like meetings before, and I can now justify the unimportance of meetings because I get nothing out of them.

But this is also self-correcting. If you do go to meetings, and go to meetings purposefully, you will start to meet people and you will have new friends for the next time. It took me a while to realize that yes, I'm going to have lunch alone and that's not as much fun as lunch with friends. But, gird your loins and talk to someone and invite yourself along. You can do a little homework in advance. Find a new young asst prof whose work you admire. Go up to them. Ask about their work. Ask to have lunch or coffee or dinner with them.


One good point Qaz  makes is science is dialog. My PhD advisor (indubitably rolling in hell at this very moment) used to say that science is not an edifice built brick by brick, and if I am your advisor, your thesis will not be a stone in that edifice. It is a living breathing entity, he said, that if one is lucky, one can grow with science and into science. The implication, of course, is that we were all very lucky to be growing with him. "Under his care" would imply an involvement on his part that did not exist.
Qaz's point about good presentations is also important. Put your best self forward. Posters in particular open up those opportunities for dialog. If no one is talking to you, make friends with the posters on either side of you, or across the aisle. That is someone with whom you can go have coffee next year.
My answer to M. Price is could be. We may not love all parts of science, but meetings, for all their pain are totally worth it. Good meeting experiences are totally different from reading papers. Here's qaz again:
Too often people treat meetings as glorified reading sessions, where they sit in the back and let the text be talked at them. The whole point of a meeting is to engage the other individuals.
That's real science.

2 responses so far

Working with A Tech

Feb 13 2015 Published by under life, professionalism in science, time, Uncategorized

One of the hardest things I ever learned as a faculty was how to work with a tech. It was doubly hard when I was young, and the people with whom I was working were within 5 years of my age.  Finding the balance between friend and employee, supervisor and colleague. Its not something for which we get trained.

As is true of trainees, the most important thing may be respect.  Recognize that this is another human being who is both different from you and still shares all sorts of stuff. Its Scylla and Charybdis all over again. Bluish-yellow. For lots of women I know, it has often worked better to veer towards the professional end of the spectrum and away from the "we're all friends in this lab". I have found that getting sunk into the inevitable personal problems that all of us have, that younger folks wear on their sleeves, can upset the flow of work in a lab. For lots of guys, the professional /cold/hard attitude can send the message that you are merely a pawn or stepping stone on my path to greatness.

This is a person who works both with you and for you. That's the balance problem. You have a job. You have a task. You have a mission. Your job and task and mission has short term and middle term and long term parts. A person, a non-trainee person, working with you and for you is going to contribute to all of those parts. They don't have to know everything, but if you treat them like a cog and tell them "what they need to know" they will not be invested in your work. They won't have loyalty towards those goals, let alone to you.

I can't tell you all the small specifics of what to do. In fact, understanding the overarching principles is probably a better guideline. Treat the people who work with you as you would want to be treated. The rest is just NIH funding.


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