Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn?

The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is. I have posted recently about some setbacks in my lab and having to pick up the pieces after some unexpected departures. Some of my readers wanted some more detail. I am not going to go into specifics too much. What I can say is that this year I have lost all three postdocs, each for a different reason. One was not a good fit and decided to quit before I had to drop the axe, one was poached away from a biotech company, and one had to leave because of family obligations. None if them had reached the three year mark in their tenure and none of them will be able to see their major project to completion. The saddest part of this is that one was awarded an NRSA fellowship from the NIH and we had to give the money back. Just the thought to give money back to the NIH makes my heart sink every time! I had to do my best to apologize to the program officer with the hope that this will not held against me in the future.

I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why this happened. Whether in addition to extraordinary bad luck, there is something that I have done to make the environment inhospitable, or to just pick the wrong people for the job. The thing is, at least two were not wrong. Between the two of them, they produced data for at least four good papers in two years. So what would make a productive scientist with exciting data, give up? Part of me is afraid that they see what I am going through, despite my desperate attempts to screen them from the vast majority of what I have to do, and they realize that they do not want my job. Another part of me thinks that, because I do so much career development and planning in the lab, I am pushing them to explore alternative careers and shooting myself in the foot at the same time. Yet, I had so many conversations with friends on whether it is even moral to hire postdocs nowadays and tell them that a career in academia is the only option. Getting into the ivory tower is harder and harder, and once you are in, it does not get easier. As a mentor, I cannot and I will not leave them ill prepared for what is out there.

My question is: Could this have been avoided? When I think about what pushed me forward all these years, don't laugh, it all comes down to my postdoctoral theme song. Yes, I have theme songs. My PhD song was Fighter by Christina Aguilera (if you listen to it, think as if it was addressed to my thesis committee. It'll be funny). My postdoc and current song is Remember the Name by Fort Minor. The key here is the refrain: "This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill/fifteen percent concentrated power of will/five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain/and a hundred percent reason to remember the name". If this doesn't describe academic science, I don't know what does. The "concentrated power of will" bit in particular, because there are days that razor-sharp uncompromising concentrated power of will is the only thing that makes me to get out of bed and keeps me going. I see it in many of my colleagues and I wonder whether this attribute, more then anything else, is what keeps academia afloat. A semi-deluded cultish sense that "I will not ever stop asking questions and pushing forward". I don't know whether you have to be born with it or whether it can be cultivated. I have not trained enough people to know and I have not figured out ways to test it. Hope Jahren in her autobiography Lab Girl describes a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine where every new student is made painstakingly label hundreds of tubes for sample collection, and then put through a lengthy discussion on the project for said tubes that ends in all the tubes going into the trash. If, instead of moping, the student responds to the exercise by happily labeling tubes for the "new and improved" project, s/he is a keeper.

How do you find someone with skill, power of will, luck and high pain tolerance? Is this really what it takes? I cannot fault any of my former people, because in the end they decided what was best for them. But, if the current funding climate is pushing promising young people out, how do I reset my expectations for running the lab?

18 comments:

  1. "Hope Jahren in her autobiography Lab Girl describes a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine where every new student is made painstakingly label hundreds of tubes for sample collection, and then put through a lengthy discussion on the project for said tubes that ends in all the tubes going into the trash. If, instead of moping, the student responds to the exercise by happily labeling tubes for the "new and improved" project, s/he is a keeper."

    How ridiculous! Science does not need people to fabricate disappointments -- they abound! If I were Jahren's student, I would quit because I refuse to allow myself to be pointlessly manipulated by my PI.

    I have a theme song, too. But I’m sad to hear yours was Fighter.

    And I am as stubborn as they come, but I'm not 100% certain that I won't take an industry job in the next year or so. (I'm a 1st year p-doc.) What gets me down about academia is what I see around me: people cutting corners, sloppy reviews, people who don't give a shit about teaching, extremely selfish mentors, etc. Why should I work so hard to join such a community?

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    1. Why is Fighter sad? I love that song. Still listen to it when I run. They did make me a fighter and I am forever grateful to them. It prepared me for this job.
      As far as the people cutting corners and general sloppiness and selfishness. I hear you. I have seen it. I have spent a lot of time discussing it as a postdoc. The only solution I found is not to give in. That is not how I was trained and it is not how I operate. This is not how I run my lab. If I go out, I will go out in a burst of rigorous and unselfish glory. The nice thing is that when you run your own lab, you can do whatever you want. I wouldn't leave academia because of selfish sloppy mentors. I would leave because you do not enjoy being an academic scientist and you do not want to teach. I would leave because you would rather work in a team and contribute to new product development. I have multiple friends in industry doing all kinds of fun things and there are tons of great jobs. But this is up to you. Just make sure that if you leave, you leave for something you will enjoy.

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    2. Well, perhaps I took the lyrics a bit too seriously. I wouldn't sing that about folks I thought had been good mentors. Does one need to be abused in order to learn that one can survive abuse and be strong? I think there are better ways to develop strength....

      FWIW, you sound like a damn good mentor to me. Of course, I've never worked for you ;-) But seriously, it sounds like just bad luck w/your pdocs. But yes, you may have to readjust expectations. Not as many people are willing to drink the Koolaid anymore.

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    3. I think there are selfish, sloppy, corner-cutting people in every community, academia or not. But at the end of the day, if the joy of discovery and the freedom to pursue whatever topics one wants (to a certain degree) do to supersede the pains, one should not stay in academia.

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  2. Coldplay's appropriately titled song "The Scientist" has a line I often repeat: "Nobody said it was easy./No one ever said it would be this hard."

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    1. Now I want to make a science psych playlist...

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  3. Your post really hit the nail on the head for me, I always ponder about this, if we can teach/ inspire people to have grit/resilience? In my short time as a PI (less than 3 years) I finally came to the conclusion that I just have to figure out how to find the people that have it to recruit to my lab :) Thank you for all your insightful postings! you sound like an awesome PI! I wish you were my PI when I was a postdoc :)

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  4. You saw this coming (I hope), but what gets me is the wording of your question: what makes a postdoc "give up?" As for the one, it sounds like a family decision which should probably be thought of as not giving up on family rather than giving up on a job. As for the other, a postdoc is a requirement for all positions these days, academic or not, so everyone does one (or two). There's no other option. It's an easy way to start narrowing down job applicants from the glut of PhDs. Doesn't matter what your ultimate career goal is. Your postdoc may have told you during the interview that all s/he wanted was a career in academia, but let's be realistic: that is obviously what someone is going to say when interviewing for any academic position, even though we all know it's BS in a world in which <1% of all science PhDs eventually become full profs (the pinnacle; no, the struggle doesn't end with your first R01, or with tenure, or with promotion, or etc.), and 15% funding rates are considered pretty good. I know many people in industry who seem more fulfilled, and even a few who publish more often, than most of my academic colleagues. Bottom line: tradition is dead. We all need to stop treating the formerly traditional path as if it's still the way to go for most people. In reality, it's the smart postdocs who don't stay in academics. Why make half the salary for a <1% chance of ever being at the top? Anyway, it's good to take a little water out of the pool of competition for grant money. Think of it as a cull: oddly enough, it may be good for science to have fewer people doing it.

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    1. I agree with everything you say and I also think that goals change throughout your career. I talk very openly to the people in my lab about their trajectory and what they want to do and I knew this might be coming. It is still shocking to me because I would never do something like that. When I won my first fellowship I was ecstatic and validated, it made me work a lot harder because I was working for myself doing what I wanted and I was able to pay my own way. It was the first thing that showed me I could do it. What I worry about is whether things are so bad right now that it doesn't matter any more...

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    2. I agree with everything you say and I also think that goals change throughout your career. I talk very openly to the people in my lab about their trajectory and what they want to do and I knew this might be coming. It is still shocking to me because I would never do something like that. When I won my first fellowship I was ecstatic and validated, it made me work a lot harder because I was working for myself doing what I wanted and I was able to pay my own way. It was the first thing that showed me I could do it. What I worry about is whether things are so bad right now that it doesn't matter any more...

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    3. "...the current funding climate is pushing promising young people out..."

      It's basically this in a nutshell. I'm an Immunology graduate student expecting to graduate in 5-6 months. I started out originally wanting to seek the academic route and I've managed to acquire all the proper credentials to date to help ensure that in terms of papers and a couple pre-doctoral fellowships.

      Except it's just not worth the risk.

      The salary paid out to postdoctoral fellows is relatively low considering our education level. This probably used to be alright considering that obtaining a tenure track position 5 years after graduation was actually reasonable. That doesn't exist now, and as you've mentioned it never really gets easier to maintain. I have some unique obligations, but I've done the math and I realize that I literally can't afford to take a postdoctoral salary for half a decade when considering family, undergraduate loans, credit cards and retirement needs.

      I also know the burden it can place on a PI to start in their lab as a postdoc and leave soon after joining, which is why I won't pursue one. However, I also think that approaching 3 years, and after that timepoint, PIs should anticipate their postdocs might end up leaving for greener pastures. It's relatively normal practice outside of academia, unfortunately PIs aren't as readily able to deal with this turnover because of the absurd funding structure. The promise of tenure used to allow, and at times probably force, postdocs to stay. That no longer exists.

      Unfortunately I don't think there's a good way to screen for this.

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  5. Lack of job security and arguably doing the most mentally taxing job. Right now, I can leave the research group and get paid the double. The only thing keeping me attached is my love for the work I am doing and that I like my supervisor too much. Our decisions to work in academia is mostly emotional; no logic supports what I am doing right now. That is the key.
    Recently, I got scooped by one of my supervisor's postgrad which made me seriously consider the leave.
    The supervisor came down like a hawk and cleared the issue right away, no hesitation, no compromise. You have to protect and support them like an overprotective mother. I might occasionally act childish or be a massive nerdchild, others too. But we get along because we are basically a family who care about one another and are ready to forgive on the spot. That is what you will be aiming to create.
    Unfortunately, with the crappy way the academia treats the employees, you are walking on thin ice, learn to patinage. It is a curse, but also a huge blessing.

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  6. I'm a new PI and I love your blog. I often read it when I'm nearing grant deadlines and shouldn't procrastinate. First off, I think you're a great mentor - and no matter what your funding or tenure situation is, trainees can sense that. So, even it's a revolving door, I'm sure you'll replenish the lab with excellent personnel. Whether it's in time to survive your competitive pressure is another subject, but don't question your leadership/mentorship style. If more PIs were as open and fair as you, the whole enterprise would be better off. Second, your openness about your struggles indicates that you're a strong person who sees value in vulnerability; that is another aspect badly missing from today's dog-eat-dog academic world. So keep fighting the good fight - you are inherently contributing more to the academic research than bs papers in glam journals that the typical soul-less post-doc factory puts out. You contribute well-trained people who end up having careers that fit. I wish every PI was like you, and aspire to follow your mold.

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    1. Things have been kind of tough these past few weeks, so your post made my day! Thank you!!

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    2. Hang in there! I'm sure to reach out when it's my turn to be cheered up or I need advice :)

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    3. Seconded. I'm a postdoc and just put in a K99 (I think searching for K99 advice is how I found this blog) and I find your blog interesting and useful. You sound like a thoughtful PI who cares about doing good science and doing right by your trainees. I hope you find great new personnel soon. :)

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