Archive for the 'Mentoring' category

Protected Pockets of Time

In yesterday's discussion, I finally got a partial glimpse of the issue when NatC observed:

Discussions about how to manage and plan protected pockets of time OUTSIDE work to do whatever - walk the bulldog, play music, train for a triathlon, watch baseball, play with your kids or nieces/nephews ir travel - would be extremely valuable work/life balance discussions to have early in this sometimes crazy career.

In full disclosure this has rarely been a problem for me. I've managed to get to where I am today (such as it is) with what I think is a healthy balance of work-to-life. Obviously some, including my spouse, might disagree but the important thing is that I think this is the case. We're talking personal, subjective "balance" here and nobody can define it for you. If you have reached it, you are going to be relatively happier and if you feel imbalanced you are going to feel sad* about it.

Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.

How did I do it?

I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.

Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

I was not, I think, willing to fail at getting the PhD. This was a defined, obtainable target for which the steps were mostly clear to me. Do the research, write that shit up into a dissertation and bob's your uncle.

After that? Well, yes, of course I wanted to succeed career-wise. In one of the professorial paths preferably. But I was willing to...not. To fail.

There have been several defined choice points at which I did the considerably sub-optimal career move for the sake of issues that we shall encompass under "life". (Also career moves which might have in the long run been suboptimal but looked great** at the time. Some of this initial appearance was influenced by "life".) Sometimes I did this out of unthinking ignorance, I will admit. I didn't perhaps realize the magnitude of the risk I was running. But I for damn sure knew there was risk. Risk of not making it in some way. Of not getting on the independent research track. Of not getting funding...or not keeping it. Of letting the lab and research program crash down to nonviability.

This hasn't stopped and it continues to this day.

Is my virtue untested? Some might observe that. From the perspective of some it looks like I have a pretty schweet gig***. From above the waterline it looks okay. Something a disgruntled postdoc or Year 3 faculty member might think is pretty much IT. As in "career accomplished"...all it takes now is running it out like you always wanted to. No risk.

I don't see it that way. I still risk failures of various sorts. Mostly the big axe is the grant funding....and it is a big one, hanging over my head more often than it is not.

So much like the disgruntled postdoc and the terrified junior faculty member...I could always work harder. More. Put in more grants. Squeeze out more papers. Refine my lab efficiency to maximize the data. Chase small project funds. Woo more trainees. Hit the seminar circuit harder. Go to more meetings.

All of this would probably benefit my career. It would make things go better professionally. We'd be more productive, no doubt.

I choose not to. That's it. There's no secret. There's no special case of insulation from the risks of choosing not to work harder than the next person. You risk paying a price.

Balance implies tradeoffs. I've certainly found it to be so. There are costs to go with every benefit. Costs that may be "just" stress, may be health issues (mental or otherwise), may be definable career failures. Having "life" balance makes this inevitable. There will be tradeoffs****, people.

This is my answer to NatC's question. Choose. Choose to take the time. Make room for what is important to you. Realize that by doing so you might fail. You might.

But you know what? These St Kern and Poo types?

I know for damn sure they've failed at life.

And that I was never willing to risk.

*don't get a puppy to cheer yourself up.
**so we won't count these, at the time they seemed really pro-career.
***and I do, I do.
****of course it goes both ways. you may be choosing a career path that really isn't compatible with your desire to tour Europe with an opera group every summer. You may have to give up some of the "life" stuff

23 responses so far

Sink or swim

Approximately how much should the PI and postdoc or grad student attend meetings together versus separately?

I think the together part is obvious and should be the majority of the time. The PI is supposed to be introducing the trainee around.

But flying solo can be great for independence.


The big shottes *have* to talk to you if the PI isn't at the meeting. So I'd definitely be okay with a handful of meetings where the trainee is there without the PI.

Making it habitual, however, is MentorMalpractice.


15 responses so far

Co-first Authorship is a lie and a sham and an embarrassment to our profession

Oh yes, "again"*.

As mentors and lab heads we should make it emphatically clear to all members of our labs that "co-equal" is only equal in the Animal Farm sense. I.e., not. And to secure the specific understanding that it is a nearly valueless sop.

As reviewers, we should start criticizing the practice with some StockCritique action. I suggest "The co-equal credit is a lie and a sham and serves only to buy off the authors who are not listed first. Please explain in full how the contributions are equal".

As Associate Editors, ditto. Only in spades and with the full weight of accept/not accept behind us.

As Journals, generically, there should be a required statement signed by all co-equal authors. To the effect that "I understand that despite the foot note about co-equal contribution, this will not be viewed as such by the academic community at large. I recognize that it is not permitted to re-order the author line on my CV or biosketch or website. I have made this decision to accept the author position of my own free will with full understanding of the career consequences."

If you cannot sign onto this behavior you are admitting you are an exploiting jerk who is full willing to lie to mentees and/or your fellow trainees about their best career moves and have nothing but your own** selfish interests at heart.

ps. it is an absolute OUTRAGE that PubMed doesn't include the symbols. This should be a trivial fix.
*for those who think this is a mere trifle, why does it keep coming up, eh? The websearch hits coming to our older posts on this topic never die down.
**if you are the lab head or listed-first author

85 responses so far

A query on mentoring

One of the most fundamental roles the mentor plays in the development of a scientist is the introduction to the subfield. Making the trainee known to other scientists who make up the field. Publication is key. Proper crediting during seminars is another. Sending the trainees to meetings and introducing them around to the key players is good too.

As I said, in my view this is fundamental. Inescapable. Science is a human enterprise like any other and therefore interpersonal relationships matter. A lot. Even if they are not supposed to, we are unable to escape our biases related to "knowing" and "not knowing" other people.

My question for you Dear Reader, is whether you were Introduced to a subfield as a trainee. Did your mentor(s) make a specific point to enshroud you in a field? If you are a mentor, do you go out of your way to Introduce your trainees?

(If applicable, feel free to tell me that this is a mark of backwater, BunnyHopper dominated OldBoyzGirlz backslapping subfields and should be rigorously uprooted.)

26 responses so far

Project Ownership

Jan 20 2012 Published by under Mentoring, Uncategorized

GMP has a good discussion going over at the Scientopia GuestBlogge.

I don't want to be a petty, selfish project-hog advisor, but it's not free for all; I don't think that all the projects that I currently work on or plan on working on are fair game to claim as your own.

Get on over there and play...

8 responses so far

Underrepresented Minority Imposter Syndrome

BikeMonkey Post
No, not what you might be thinking. This is not about any disproportional rate of feeling like an imposter on the part of people who are underrepresented in science. (I'm sure that is a reality, btw.) This is going to be about people who feel like they are impersonating an underrepresented class. To the extent that it bothers them to be fulfilling any sort of role where they are expected to be, overtly, a member of that class. I'll let Namnezia explain:

I mean, yea, I'm a minority and I do science, I have not much to say beyond that. What bothers me about these panels is that they imply that if you are somehow different then this difference permeates your every thought all the time, as if every time you walk into the lab you think "Oh I wonder which minority/gay/female/disabled issues I'll be facing today through my unique set of circumstances". I mean no, I'm thinking more along the lines of "I wonder what science will bring today". Or, "my kids were a pain in the ass this morning". Or "I have to pee". To me, being a minority is pretty much a non-issue during my everyday work.

Yeah, pretty much. For most people who are underrepresented and are in a halfway decent workplace. Just like this is the case for most people who are seemingly underrepresented in their other walks of life- perhaps because of the neighborhood they live in, the town or the state. Their socio-economic status. Perhaps because of where their kids go to school or where their spouse works. Or who their family is...or their spouse's family.

Most folks I know of in such situations just bloody go about the business of their lives.

It isn't like shit gets real 24/7.

But sometimes it does. Sometimes.

The fact that one does not have to be on constant alert at all moments of every day for some sort of negative event that is relevant to one's underrepresented class or status does not mean that one will never experience a negative event. The value as a mentor and role model is not dictated by how much adversity one has suffered*. The value is that one has succeeded. After all, the trainees are not seeking advice on how to suffer so much discrimination that they fail...they are looking to succeed.

The fact that there may be some blessed someones out there who are of underrepresented class or status and will never, ever experience any sort of insult, detriment or other noticeable event because of their class or status does not make those people imposters either. In fact this latter may be highly relevant. After all, if such people exist perhaps others do as well. And they are wondering if they are an imposter and/or what sort of loony world they live in which is discrimination free. So you can mentor them, if you feel this way.

Namnezia's comment was made to a post by GertyZ who was pondering whether she should volunteer to lead a roundtable for GLBT issues at a scientific meeting. The post and commentary circle around the notion that it is possible for many GLBT types to "pass". To operate undetected within a majority culture assumption which one does not seemingly fit. Everyone** passes to some degree or other. Passes for majority class and passes for any of a host of minority classes at other times. Rarely** does anyone inhabit a perfect storm of privilege and rarely does anyone inhabit a perfect storm of the lack thereof.

Given this, who is more authentic? Nobody is. We all just live our lives as they unfold. We gain experiences painful or joyous. We get along and get by. We work, we play, we raise our children.

Diverse as we are, our experiences may help others who come behind us along various pathways. Mentoring is, at the very root, using our experiences to help smooth the path for those followers. There is no obligation that I am aware of for the mentee to fit precisely into the footprints of the mentor for this process to be effective.

*Although people who are motivated to dismiss and overlook subtle discrimination are fond of playing this sort of Oppression Olympics and implying that if you've never been jumped in an alley by epithet shouting skinheads that all is peachy-keen. Very fond.

**Well, not white educated librul elite uppermiddle class heteronormative jockosporto hailfellowellmet white doods in science, but you take my point.

53 responses so far

Overselling the candidate on a letter of recommendation

brooksphd is pondering a letter of recommendation

"X just applied and she listed you as a reference!"
But this feels nice! And scary - is there an added layer of responsibility on both sides of this equation now?

There is, and I observed that one should avoid overselling the candidate in making one's comments. To this brooksphd replied:

that's the issue I'm thinking about. Did I, could I, would I maybe oversell (or undersell) someone? Really, would it be bad to now 'oversell' someone? to really emphasize their fit because you can write a better letter. Is it common practice? Same as under selling someone is an easy, "I certainly consider this candidate above average. Hir fit in your lab is good. S/he reads the literature and makes solutions at the correct concentration accurately..."

Now, I recognize it is common practice to oversell and I seek ways to include a lot of confidence in the letters that I write for people. I put the best possible spin on my estimation of their talents and I may occasionally neglect to mention the odd deficit that I have observed.

But you have to keep it within reason.

I've had at least one experience in the past where I took someone into the lab at least partially on the strength of a recommendation letter...and this turned out to be an unreasonable oversell.

I will remind you that this is in full recognition of the type of excessive enthusiasm that we mentor types often think we need to include in the letter. Also with what I happen to think is a reasonable sympathy for the exigencies of life that can cause people's work to be somewhat below the stellar, even for extended intervals of time.

This particular trainee sucked.

And it wasn't just me, either. We're talking all around failure to perform in the context of multiple obligations of this particular training dealio. It happens, and this is not the main point.

The main point is the original letter writer who testified to the skills of this particular individual in a scientific/laboratory context. There is no way in hell the letter could have been an accurate reflection. No way this person performed well in the past...or even performed at average. No way.

So my opinion of this letter writer is now and forever somewhere less than dirt. For certain sure I would never trust any other recommendations that this person might make.

I learned a lesson, my friends, a very powerful one.

You need to keep your recommendations within bounds. Do NOT ever give a glowing recommendation for someone if you know that they are going to turn out to perform significantly below average.

Because if you get burned, that mud comes back on you.

10 responses so far

Authorship Order Rules: The Departed are Demoted

This comes up not infrequently in laboratories. Suppose one person, a trainee or postdoc, leaves the lab with his or her manuscript not completed*. Sure, this dearly departed individual may have started the project and/or done the bulk of the work on it.

But still, it isn't a manuscript.

And it therefore isn't going to be a paper, ever, until someone else steps up and does the work. Finishes the draft at the very least. Polishes off the figures. Submits the damn thing. Fields the original criticisms. Marshals the response to review. Creates the revision.

If one other remaining/subsequent person in the laboratory does all this, the dearly departed loses the first author slot. Arguments about the scientific importance of the original idea or the key data pale at this point.

Because if it isn't published it didn't happen.

There is an important practical concern for mentors and you will want to think very closely about this. It opens the door for any subsequent trainee to leave unfinished (as in unsubmitted) projects behind and then later insist that they have the right to be first author when someone else finishes it up. The motivational impact on your trainees' behavior is somewhere damn close to disastrous.

*Yes, there will be some wiggle here about "Oh, I submitted a complete draft to the PI and all it needed was a little editing" when it wasn't even close to being submittable.

29 responses so far


Aug 11 2011 Published by under Mentoring

This is hilarious. Mu-Ming Poo, who out-K3rn3d StKern before he even thought of his vomitous screed, is back in the news. Here are some highlights from Poo's infamous letter to his laboratory

Every one works at least 50 hr a week in the lab (e.g., 8+ hr a day, six days a week). This is by far lower than what I am doing every day and throughout most of my career. You may be smarter or do not want to be as successful, but I am not asking you to match my time in the lab...I mean real bench work. This does not include surfing on the computer and sending and receiving e-mails for non-scientific matters unrelated to your work (you can do this after work in the lab or at home), and excessive chatting on nonscientific matters. No long lunch break except special occasions. I suggest that everyone puts in at least 6 hr concentrated bench work and 2+ hr reading and other research-related activity each day. Reading papers and books should be done mostly after work...But if you do not like to follow the rules because it is simply a matter of choice of life style, I respect your choice but suggest you start making plans immediately and leave the lab by the end of January 31. I will do my best to help you to locate a lab to transfer or to find a job.

Apparently he did not cover the allowable number of potty breaks. Probably an oversight.

Anyhow, disappointed, no doubt with the less-than-enslaved work ethic of the indentured servants available to him from his perch at UC Berkeley, Poo secured a part time appointment in Shanghai. Alas, his dream was short lived. Those ungrateful rat bastard Chinese scientists had the gall to get uppity!

Poo is still sceptical about the future of Chinese science. He worries that misconduct is still tolerated and that the country's work ethic is being eroded, with students demanding comfortable living arrangements, better food and vacations.

BETTER FOOD????? VACATION??? But children are dying of CANCER!!!! Ooops, I mean "those damn axonal growth cones are not going to direct themselves!!!"

...and he might just be applying this to appointed scientists, not just trainees. I guess that is progress?

The ION has also lost senior staff to the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, and other universities. Poo blames the departures on better salaries elsewhere, although a critic — who does not want to be named — points to his 'overly controlling' managerial style.

C'mon, I'm sure he's not asking them to work any harder than he does himself...

16 responses so far

Do you know what was proposed in the grant supporting your science?

Jul 16 2011 Published by under Mentoring, NIH Careerism

A poll for my readers. Do, or did, you read the grant proposals that support the work that you are doing? I'm curious about that at all levels- from undergrad to tech to grad student to postdoc.

I don't think I had any idea what was in the grants or even what grants supported my work until my last postdoc. In that one, I was given all the proposals and I certainly read them.

How about you? Have you read the grant applications that funded your work at each training stage?

32 responses so far

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