Saturday, March 3, 2018

You are not alone and the scientific community is strong and caring

Some days on Twitter it sounds like the academic scientific community is cold and competitive with a few evil overlords sitting on piles of money and feasting on the remains of trainees killed by overwork. While I will not deny that such characters exist, I sometimes worry that the image portrayed online is bleaker and scarier than the reality, and that it may contribute to deterring trainees from staying in academia. Social climbers are the same in academia as they are in corporations or banking, you will always find power hungry people with no scruples.

My experience both in real life and online has always been that many remain in academia because they enjoy teaching and mentoring, creating a strong caring network that has cheered for me and supported me every step of the way. I have seen my friends from grad school rise through the ranks, postdocs are now associate/full professors and grad students are my peers. Students that I knew as a postdoc are now starting faculty positions and becoming colleagues and collaborators. Mentors and senior faculty have been staunch advocates, often when least expected. Everyone knows how hard this is! It became really clear to me when I was checking references for my first postdocs and I would mention I was starting my own lab. Every single senior faculty I talked to was eager to help and discussed my needs and whether their trainees would fit in a new lab or not.

In this job you constantly meet new people, but once you've been around for a while in a particular field, you constantly find how you are connected with everyone by fewer degrees of separation than you think. You can often sit at dinner at a conference and find that the person next to you is a good friend of a friend, and every year your circle becomes larger and larger. As a trainee I really did not appreciate the benefit of networking with your peers, since for me it was just hanging out with other students and postdocs. But because of academic mobility, every time I moved and my friends moved, we accumulated more friends, who are tied in a mesh of other close colleagues around the world. Online academic communities, be Twitter, ResearchGate or The New PI Slack, only expand these horizons. This supports job opportunities and collaborations, talks and conference invitations, requests to review manuscripts and grants. It will make your career.

Young scientists are often intimidated by approaching older/"famous" faculty, especially if they are hanging out in a group, but often what they are doing is exactly what the juniors are doing: complaining about stuff and catching up with friends. If you want to meet them at a conference for a job opportunity or a collaboration, shoot them an email before the meeting and set up a time to chat. Many people will be happy to comply and to help. Some won't because they have no time or they do not care, which brings me to what motivated me to write this post. Do your due diligence when choosing a mentor and surrounding yourself with a mentoring team. Do not accept abusive behavior as the norm. In rising through the ranks I have begun to be involved in broader conversations about scientific training and career development and I have been inspired by so many senior scientists who care very deeply about helping trainees and affecting change. They are dismayed at their colleagues who use trainees as cheap labor to produce high-profile papers without providing proper training, and there is constant discussion on how to change that culture. One solution is just not to go work for the jerks and find those who will support you. If you consciously choose to work for a jerk at your own risk (sometimes science and money may drive the decision), find others who will support you. But also ask for what you need from your university's trainee office and student/postdoc association or your scientific society. There are a lot of people out there who really care. You are not alone!

So to open the discussion, students and postdocs, what do you need? Let's say I'm in the position to generate some of these resources in the future, what resources are you missing?


  1. While I agree that "don't work for jerks" is an easy way to get things changed, it's not always so simple. Besides some of the factors you mentioned, one major factor, especially for me, is that my advisor was a jerk and no one was around to tell me.

    He was relatively new when I started and his two post docs only mentioned good things (even though they had their own struggles with him). I wonder if this is the case for others too, especially if you're a graduate student starting out, or a post doc moving into a new field with limited contacts.

    1. Yes, definitely!! On top of that, people who aren't well-connected enough to be warned away from jerks also don't have the connections to easily leave either.

      My PhD department was very laissez-faire regarding prof's interactions with their trainees. This caused awkward power differentials when a trainee's PI is being a jerk or not doing their job: there is no easy way for a grad student to *make* their advisor to work on a manuscript or schedule a committee meeting--and Lord knows I tried!

      In these situations, the tinest amount of interest or pressure from a colleague ("Hey, did you read that manuscript yet? You mentioned that you'd get to it soon at her last committee meeting?") might make a huge difference. If the trainee is coming from an influential lab, their previous boss might be able to provide some of that, but the department also ought to take care of (all of) its own.

    2. Sorry I didn't follow up right away, but last week was a bit crazy. I know and the post was willingly very positive and ignoring some of these issues, but sometimes you have to celebrate the good when everyone just brings up the worst.

      I am working with multiple groups that are thinking about these issues and changing the culture is definitely one of the most difficult ones...especially since the culture is often set up by the university itself. But culture change will take years. One immediate solution is to provide online resources that trainees can find and use if their mentor is not being responsive. But in general in my experience, one of the best solutions for one's career is to leave a toxic situation as soon as possible. I know trainees are scared to do that if they have invested 2-3 years in a lab, but if the boss is clearly a jerk that may be the only option and friends who have done that have thrived afterwards in a different environment. The other solution is to look for mentorship elsewhere. My own postdoc mentor was good for some things and bad for others, I found other people to support me with the others.

  2. "Social climbers are the same in academia as they are in corporations or banking, you will always find power hungry people with no scruples."

    True. But in Academia, the natural checks and balances that contain these folks to some degree in industry are not present. I spent 7 years in Academia (3 as postdoc; 4 as TT prof) and the past 10+ years in industry. In Academia, the feudal nature of the system permits abuses that are simply not possible in industry. For example, employees have basic protections under US law; graduate students that work as RAs don't. The picture that comes across may be bleak, but it is realistic.

    And I agree with Anonymous above -- don't work for jerks is not an answer. The fact that so few grad students and trainees are willing to be really honest with prospective lab members about the people they work for is a testament to how much power these individuals have over their lives and careers. Do you think that women should have simply refused to work for Harvey Weinstein?

    You want to know what you can do as a professor? Why don't you and your community do more to ostracize the bad apples? Do you understand what it feels like to see the person that is making your life hell get awards and warm hugs from his colleagues? How about professors start by refusing to work with the "jerks" in their own communities? But you know this won't happen, because people will prioritize their research and the benefits of working with folks who may be OK with colleagues but are a$$holes to their students. And this is the message that students/trainees receive: your experience doesn't matter.

  3. This was a nice post to read today. Sometimes academic twitter just seems like a place where everyone is achieving more than me, with posts of X number of paper submissions/acceptances this week and X award. Sometimes it's hard to dig through and find the supportive corners of social media

  4. One way to protect graduate students from difficult lab heads is to make them rotate 3 or so labs, 3 months in each lab, before they commit for a PhD. Some institutions such as EMBL do this already in their programs. I think this is a good system as it gives the student exposure to different research programs. It also builds their network so that if problems arise they might know some kind faculty to turn to.