Archive for the 'Tribe of Science' category

A simple question (or two) on training graduate students

Sep 13 2014 Published by under Postgraduate Training, Tribe of Science

This one is directed at my Readers who have supervised graduate students through the PhD in their laboratory.

Have you ever, at any point, thought that you should not train more than replacement value (n=1)?

If not, why not? What influences in your life have shaped your decision to train graduate students? What is YOUR purpose here?

69 responses so far

Soundtrack for getting your Reviewer #3 on

No responses yet

On making progress

90% of the progress on my manuscripts and grants takes place during 20% of the time I am ostensibly working on them.

7 responses so far

The Birds and the Bees, academic version

Some guy has written a blog post asking "Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?"

This is not an absurd question on the face of it and one of his points appears to be that hiring postdocs is done in preference to hiring longer-term staff-scientist type people.

Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem. Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience. Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done. A permanent researcher also becomes a great asset for the lab as they accumulate valuable skills.

I agree that if you can manage to do this, in preference to a series of 3-5 year cheap 'trainees' doing the same job, this is a morally superior place to be. Totally.

The blog post starts, however, with the following figure

sourced from Schillebeeckx et al (2013) in Nature Biotechnology.

See how the production of new PhDs each year leads to an ever-increasing disconnect between the number of available PhDs and the number of faculty jobs? So yes, there is an increasing body of postdocs being exploited and not being able to get the faculty jobs that they started graduate training to obtain.


They were made. Intentionally. By faculty who benefit tremendously in their own careers from an inexpensive, unbelievably hard working, young and less-distracted, deluded and optimistic workforce.

Faculty who, as it happens, are unbelievably motivated to come up with excuses why their continued overproduction of PhDs year in, year out, is not any sort of problem.

You know, kind of like any sort of Western subpopulation which advocates family sizes of 8, 15 or whatnot can't find any sort of problem with overpopulation.

And kind of like the US Baby Boomers stopped talking about overpopulation the second they realized their comfy retirements were gonna depend on a lot bigger working population behind them, paying the taxes that they couldn't even be bothered to pay in their own heyday.

But I digress.

The point is, that this blog post contains a big old howler:

One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options. So, in my view, most PhDs should not go onto the academic track. But in general having more educated people in the non-academic world is good, especially given how many people do not believe in evolution or what idiots oversee science in Congress. A more detailed discussion of this subject is a topic for another day.



Bog-standard excuse making that I hear from every damn participant in a graduate program that simply cannot bear to see that their habit has been to exploit cut rate labor. At first they simply refused to admit that there was any overproduction whatsoever. Then, when the evidence became overwhelming, they clutched the excuse of "alt-careers" and "general good" like a man going down for the third time grasping a life-saver ring.

It's laughable and pathetic.

One might even venture, immoral.

p.s. I don't blame people directly for participating in this crappy system we are in. It demands that PIs exploit people to survive in the grant-funded rat race. Having a lab based exclusively on the work of ever more expensive career TurboTechs and Staff Scientists is a path to disaster. I grasp this. But for Glory's sake people! Stop pretending it is something it isn't. Stop pretending that your lab's arrangements are totally free of exploitation but those other aspects of the system, over there, are immoral and evil.

56 responses so far

Oh, you aren't alone in your teeth clenching

27 responses so far

PSA: Keep your age assumptions about PIs to yourowndamnself

Jul 01 2014 Published by under Gender, Tribe of Science, Underrepresented Groups

I realize this is not news to most of you. But the Twitts are aTwitt today about the way youthful appearing faculty are treated by.....everyone.

From undergrads to grads to postdocs to faculty and administration there is a perception of what a Professor looks like.

And generally that perception means "old". See Figure 1.

Google Image Search for "Professor"

Figure 1: Google Image Search for "Professor"

So if you look in some way too young for the expectation, junior faculty are occasionally mistaken for postdocs or grad students.

This effect has a profound sex bias, of course, which is why I'm bringing it up.

Women are much more likely to report being confused for nonfaculty.

This has all sorts of knock on bad effects including how seriously their peers take them as scientists and peers, their own imposter syndrome battles and their relationships with trainees.

My request to you, if you have not considered such issues, is to just remember to check yourself. When in doubt at a poster session or academic social event, assume the person might be faculty until and unless they clue you in otherwise by what they say. Hint: When they say "my boss" or "my PI" or "my mentor" then it is okay to assume the person is a trainee. If they say "my lab" and don't further qualify then it is best to assume they are the head.

In most cases, it simply isn't necessary for you to question the person AT ALL about "who they work for".

I have only two or three experiences in my career related to this topic, as one would expect being that I present pretty overtly as male. They all came fairly early on when I was in my early thirties.

One greybeard at a poster session (at a highly greybearded and bluehaired meeting, admittedly) was absolutely insistent about asking who's lab it "really" was. I was mostly bemused because I'm arrogant and what not and I thought "Who IS this old fool?". I think I had ordered authors on the poster with me first and my trainees and/or techs in following order and this old goat actually asked something about whether it was the last author's (my tech) lab.

There were also a mere handful of times in which people's visual reaction on meeting me made it clear that I violated their expectations based on, I guess, knowing my papers. Several of these were situations in which the person immediately or thereafter admitted they were startled by how young I was.

As I said, I present as male and this is basically the expected value. Men don't get the queries and assumptions quite so much.

One final (and hilarious) flip side. I happened to have a couple of posters in a single session at a meeting once upon a time, and my postdoctoral PI was around. At one of my posters this postdoc advisor was actually asked "Didn't you use to work with [YHN]?" in the sort of tone that made it clear the person assumed I had been the PI and my advisor the trainee.

Guess what gender this advisor is?

51 responses so far


Jun 26 2014 Published by under Conduct of Science, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

This sentence gave me cold chills.

Younger scientists need protection from the ambitions of their elders.

22 responses so far

Science: happy.

Jun 26 2014 Published by under Tribe of Science

I see Twitter based networks of newishly transitioned scientists forming and I cannot wait to see some collaborative papers emerge.

Get on it Tweepers!

One response so far

PSA on reporting conflicts during academic presentations

The joke about how you'd like to have some financial conflicts of interest to declare, but sadly you have none, is no longer amusing.

Knock it off.

9 responses so far

How do you unpoison a sub-field?

Jun 12 2014 Published by under Conduct of Science, Tribe of Science

We all know the signs.

A small group of successful, egotistical scientists who view themselves as being in mortal combat with each other.

A few trainees or hangers-on who have signed on under each warring camp.

A scientific topic of mutual interest.

But then there are the good people. The ones who want to advance the topic and care much less about who gets Ultimate Credit. The ones who think the field should, would and could be much farther along if the Big Folks would just stop their petty infighting and paranoid ravings.

We need the Big Cheeses...they do decent work and they have the ear of Program. They have the reputational chops to pull off ambitious projects. If only they would do so.

So side stepping them altogether is not an option.

But we cannot continue letting them clog things up with their egos and competitions.

So far, all I have is a vague idea of an alliance of the like minded, lower-down decent people in the subfield. But I don't know how to make this work yet.

How do you draw the poison?

27 responses so far

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