Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New PIs and Postdocs

Prof-like Substance hosted an interesting discussion on fresh PIs mentoring postdocs (starting in the comments here and continuing in a separate post), prompted by the observation that some funding agencies are reluctant to fund a postdoc for a new PI. In terms of funding agencies, I have gotten that exact criticism myself--no postdoc for you, you are too new.

In terms of new PIs as postdoc mentors, I think that this depends a lot more on the person than on the career stage. Dr. Girlfriend is strongly opposed to the idea of allowing people new to the TT to mentor postdocs. She says:

I still do not get how someone who has no experience in running a lab and managing staff can be a good mentor to someone aspiring the this role.

A new PI can be an excellent mentor for graduate students because they are hands-on and heavily invested in their success.

However, a postdoc does not need training regards doing research - they require only experience in this respect.

Getting a job requires a good publication record, but getting tenure requires much more. A postdoc need to learn how to become a group leader and develop a project to take with them.

An associate and full professors will have current experience of interviewing and the tenure process because they are serving on search committees.


I will grant her point about managing personnel--this is something I am learning on the job. But in terms of actual experience with looking for an academic job, a person new to the TT will have given this far more thought recently than a more established mentor (after all, they just did it themselves). I was told that for this reason, new profs are sought out for search committees (my experience, shown here and here, and blogged about by Gerty-Z).

I am far, far invested in my students' success than a more established professor with a large lab. As a new professor, I need everyone to do as well as possible to show productivity for tenure. Personally, I have no track record, so I am highly motivated to help my lab folks get the best jobs they can.

I also highly object to the notion that a new PI will not allow a postdoc to develop a project they can take with them. I allow my lab peeps to do whatever they want to for at least part of their time. There is work that must be done, of course, but certainly this doesn't take up 100% of anyone's time. While I do expect to reap the benefit of the intellectual abilities of those in my lab, I am confident enough in myself and my creativity that I certainly would not force someone to leave behind a pet idea.

In addition, I (like many others) had to start from nothing (couldn't take anything from my National Lab, since it all belongs to the Fed Gov), so this is not the kiss of death for new faculty. Second, this can be a crutch and a major disadvantage. When we interview people who plan to continue work started in their previous lab(s), we wonder if the idea is theirs or the PIs. We also worry that they as a new PI will be directly competing for funding with their established mentor's lab, at least in the eyes of funding agencies.

Taking a postdoc in a new lab is certainly risky, since the new lab has no track record. But it is also much more open, since all the projects are brand new. I found this attractive to my first 2 students (they wanted to have their own projects right from the start), and I imagine that some postdocs would feel the same way. Other postdocs might value the connections/mentoring on running an established lab that a more experienced professor can provide. This seems like a personal decision, not a place for a hard and fast rule.

19 comments:

Dr.Girlfriend said...

I really am surprised at the emotional responses to my views.

I would love to hear comments from PI who came straight from a new lab.

One point I will contest is the notion that a new PI has "just made it". They have not. They have cleared the first hurdle.

Getting a TT job says you are good at research and have potential as a professor. Getting tenure says you have proved yourself as a team leader and professor.

New PIs make the best mentors for graduate students because they are current, hands-on, and invested in their success. In bigger labs students will be mentored by postdocs - not so ideal for the students, but great for postdocs.

I think postdocs get so focussed on winning that coveted TT job that they lose sight of the big picture - getting tenure!

I am not saying that "learning as you go" is a recipe for failure, but I do think that acquiring experience managing personal and leadership skills before you get your TT job will allow you to hit the ground running.

My point is not that a new PI will not ALLOW a postdoc to develop a project to take with them, but they may not be able to AFFORD to. The future success of you mentees is important - but what if your chances of tenure depend on you yourself publishing on, or writing a grant, based on that exciting new project?

GMP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GMP said...

I must agree with Dr. Girlfriend that there certainly are potential pitfalls to having a very junior PI when you are a postdoc.

I would say that being in a vulnerable (pre-tenure) position makes a very new PI probably less desirable than a somewhat seasoned PI (near end of TT or mid-career). I hired my first postdoc near the end of my TT, and it worked great. I don't think I would have been very effective as a postdoc mentor in years 1-3 on TT, simply because the postdoc is with you for a short time (2 years in my field) and you want them to publish as much as they can, which is probably not happening when what they need to do is set up your lab. But some postdocs may find this appealing (building the lab from scratch), although it may hurt their record due to long lead time to pubs. But I understand that in a lot of fields the postdoc is longer so this may not be an issue.

Another big downside is that the new PI's name may not carry a lot of weight. But I think this can be overcome with a stellar publication record ("He was postdoc with Rising Star, has many papers on hot exciting topics!")

Another difference: the PI get invited to give a talk at a major meeting. A pre-tenure PI will go give it themselves as they need exposure, whereas a senior faculty will often send a postdoc.

I think TT PI can certainly make wonderful and caring mentors, and the postdoc should weigh what they want, how long of a postdoc they envision, what they expect to get out of it first and foremost. I think it makes little sense to make a broad statement such as "TT faculty should not mentor postdocs" but there certainly are things to worry about.
I would also never go for a postdoc in the humongous lab of Prof Superstar if that means he would not get to know me at all, and would not be able to write me a personalized stellar letter of recommendation. So every situation comes with downsides. Postdocs are smart people, I am sure they can weigh the options for themselves. But if you only have one postdoc offer, then that's it. You might as well make the best of it, no matter who the PI.

Arlenna said...

I would love to hear comments from PI who came straight from a new lab.

Ask Physioprof, he postdoc'ed in a new lab and went on to be a successful, tenured PI at a fancy-pants medical school institution. Learning what you need to know to succeed at tenure is so much more about having a TRANSPARENT and STRATEGIC mentor than having an "experienced" or "older" one.

My point is not that a new PI will not ALLOW a postdoc to develop a project to take with them, but they may not be able to AFFORD to. The future success of you mentees is important - but what if your chances of tenure depend on you yourself publishing on, or writing a grant, based on that exciting new project?

I think you are misunderstanding the process somewhat. For the TT PI, it does not matter what the papers are about as long as there are enough papers with your name as senior author. Anything that comes out of your lab, even if it is an idea that your postdoc generated relatively independently, counts for your tenure. Also, something my own postdoc mentor used to say: "There are plenty of ideas in the world, there's no need to be too possessive." Any good, creative researcher will be coming up with numerous project ideas a day and can afford to let a few of them become seeds for someone else.

In just two years of running my lab, I already have more projects and ideas than I have people to work on them. I don't even WANT to write grants on all of them, because then I'd have to actually work on them, and I don't have time and attention to give to this many ideas!! If my postdoc wants to take the angle he's developed on our work and make it his own, he can go for it! Every postdoc should always be trying to find something unique and separate but still related to their postdoc lab, and PIs should not need to be turfy about that. The postdoc will generate papers with the PI's name on them while she/he is in the PI's lab, and go on to cultivate their angle on the topic elsewhere, and there is no inherent overlap just because the postdoc got the ideas while in that PI's lab.

I'll also add that the above was NOT clear to me when I first started--I was really worried about this when I was a postdoc and when I had just begun my TT position. I worried that I wouldn't be able to share my work and ideas with a postdoc who would deserve that independence, I worried that I wouldn't be able to mentor a postdoc well since I was just starting out myself. But over the last two years, my opinion has changed even through just this level of experience I now have. I feel perfectly confident with my ability to teach a postdoc what it takes to get yourself off on the best possible foot towards tenure, and I feel perfectly confident with postdocs developing their own independent directions from our lab's work. The key is that transparency I mentioned above: always communicating about the process and about idea 'ownership.'

GamesWithWords said...

I think you are misunderstanding the process somewhat. For the TT PI, it does not matter what the papers are about as long as there are enough papers with your name as senior author. Anything that comes out of your lab, even if it is an idea that your postdoc generated relatively independently, counts for your tenure.

This almost certainly depends on the department and on the school. I suspect everyone is impressed by a large number of publications, but some schools (like mine) take impact very seriously. A bunch of low-impact papers proves not that you are a productive researcher, but that you can't tell the wheat from the chaff.

A great deal of status comes from being known for a particular idea or line of research. It's hard (though not impossible) for two different people to claim ownership over the same idea -- usually credit attaches to one or the other. So yes, if that idea becomes associated with your post-doc and not you, you do lose something. If you have enough game-changing ideas, though, it probably won't matter.

Arlenna said...

First of all, in the timeline of tenure, there is no way that idea is going to become associated with your postdoc and not you. There is really no reason to be worried about it for that reason. The postdoc is going to be seen as your trainee by the people who evaluate you for tenure, meaning that those papers will be seen as "your" line of research. This is WORLDS different than if you were still publishing papers with your own postdoc mentor's name on them. During the time that you come up for tenure, there is no way your former postdocs will have established enough of a research program to be considered your competitors by tenure evaluators.

Second of all, who's to say those papers your postdoc is churning out via their awesomeness are not going to be high impact? The more latitude you give a smart, hardworking trainee to do their thing, the more likely it is they will generate good pubs for you.

GMP said...

It's hard (though not impossible) for two different people to claim ownership over the same idea -- usually credit attaches to one or the other.

I'm with Arlenna on this one; your postdoc is not a threat to you on TT if he/she is a coauthor, it's assumed the work is yours and they are a trainee. The credit generally attaches to the most senior among coauthors. So your former advisor or PI actually is a threat if he/she is still on papers with you midway through TT. Your studnets and postdoc as coauthors are 100% beneficial, as it's assumed it's your idea and/or guidance that lead to the nice work, and you show you can obvioulsy mentor people to success.

Arlenna said...

Indeed, it would be bad for THEIR tenure for you to continue to be an author on their papers after they left, but it won't affect yours (as the PI) at all.

Arlenna said...

uhh, sorry that didn't come out right: it won't be bad for your tenure for them to be on a bunch of papers with you, even if they take the ideas with them to their own lab.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for an interesting conversation!

GMP, I am in a field with 2 year postdocs, and I agree with you that it is unfair to the postdoc to hire them into a barren lab. I don't currently have a postdoc in my group, though I am considering hiring one soon. I felt it best to wait until my lab renovations were done and my equipment was in so that my potential postdoc could be productive from day 1.

Arlenna, I totally agree with you about being nervous about being a good mentor. I was worried about supervising students let alone postdocs. But starting out a labmakes me realize just how much experience and growth I've had since I was last a student/postdoc, so I am less nervous.

My philosophy on ideas is similar to yours--I have more than I can pursue, and I am confident there will be more. I had one mentor as a student who believed in being generous with ideas and information, since you never know who will be able to help you out someday. I had another mentor who hoarded ideas and always worried about having ideas stolen or being scooped. Both were successful scientists, but I am more open by nature, so I am more like the first mentor than the second.

GWW, in my field (and related fields) the "credit" for an idea goes to the senior author, deserved or not. My last few papers with National Lab will be "credited" to my former colleague, although they are mostly mine. I am not worried about postdocs leaving my lab with ideas unless they unethically leave my name off publications started in my lab.

There is lots of room between Nature/Science and Joe's Journal of My Friends' Experiments. Many people get tenure without ever publishing in Nature or Science. Personally, I aim for the journal that will give my work the best exposure, since citations are really important in showing importance to the field.

GamesWithWords said...

This may be an issue peculiar to cognitive science, but graduate students are frequently able -- and often encouraged -- to do work fairly different from their mentor's specifically in order to establish a separate reputation. It's not uncommon for successful graduate students to establish a solid reputation before graduation, particularly if they're working on a topic their mentor isn't known for. That's not the typical experience by any means, though I can think of a number of examples.

But I think I'm being understood as on the side of being careful with post-docs and students. I'm not (it would be counter-purpose in my case, anyway!). Some years ago I asked a successful senior professor how he managed to publish 10-20 papers a year, many of which were high-impact. He said it was simple: have good collaborators, good students, and never argue about authorship. Which makes sense -- the ultimate goal is good research, and if you produce enough, you'll be fine.

I still have to disagree with the paper publication philosophy, though. I'm struck by just how many incomplete papers I read -- ones with a couple possibly informative but definitely confounded experiments that suggest something but say little. With the huge quantity of papers out there, most of which never get cited, why contribute to the clutter?

A nice example is Steve Pinker. For his status and his field, he's published relatively little, but there isn't a throw-away publication in the bunch. I'm not sure if it's just a golden thumb or an unwillingness to publish incomplete work, but it's an impressive track record.

Hope said...

I really am surprised at the emotional responses to my views.

Wow, TT-profs don’t like hearing that they may not make the best mentors for postdocs? I am shocked – shocked, I say!

There are always trade-offs and individual variability, and while I certainly wouldn’t disqualify someone from mentorship just because they don’t have tenure, I think that the risks outweigh the benefits with an untenured prof.

New PIs make the best mentors for graduate students….

I completely disagree with this assertion. Tenured profs don’t always have big labs and no time for grad students. There are a number of drawbacks to being the grad student of a new PI – one of the most obvious and important is that this person is an untested quantity. You have no feedback from prior students to weigh, and it’s difficult to judge what part of the pub record is truly theirs vs. their mentor’s. New faculty are a gamble – for the dept., the postdoc, and the grad student. Some people are worth the risk, but let’s not pretend that it’s not risky.

Hope said...

@GWW: With the huge quantity of papers out there, most of which never get cited, why contribute to the clutter?

People are under the impression that this helps them get tenure, promotions, etc. And sadly, it does. Even the people who should be in a position to distinguish quality vs. quantity often do not.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

Hope -

"Wow, TT-profs don’t like hearing that they may not make the best mentors for postdocs? I am shocked – shocked, I say!"

I am shocked that assistant professors think they have "made it". Perhaps this is why not getting tenure can be so personally devastating?

I believe too many postdocs make the mistake of focusing on getting a TT position, that they lose sight of the big picture - getting tenure. Some do just fine clearing one hurdle, and then facing the next. Doing great research will get you a TT position, but it is not enough to get you tenure. If you have successfully juggled teaching, mentoring, and outreach with research as a postdoc you will hit the ground running when you have to "do it for real".

"New PIs make the best mentors for graduate students….
I completely disagree with this assertion."

It was a blanket statement, and granted some senior professors are "hands-on". However, ALL assistant professors have recent and extensive experience of bench work techniques and project management. Unlike postdocs, graduate students need to learn how to do research. Postdocs (under the mentorship of a PI) can make adequate/good mentors and supervisors for students. This is a valuable experience for a postdoc who is aspiring to professordom.

prodigal academic said...

@GWW
I totally agree with you that the trend towards sending out Least Publishable Units is adding to the clutter and annoyance in keeping up with the literature. I would much prefer to have fewer but highly cited papers, and structure my research plans accordingly.

@Hope
I think that most people new to the TT are well aware that there are pluses and minuses to joining a brand new lab for both students and postdocs. It can be an opportunity (and we all hope that is the case in our labs), or a nightmare. There is lots of information out there about why you SHOULDN'T go with a newly minted adviser. We should get to air our side too! :-)

@Dr. Girlfriend
I think most people who get TT positions are self-confident about their abilities, and never think they will be the ones to be denied tenure. I think you are absolutely right that many people new to the TT are incredibly research focused, and struggle with balancing the other parts of the job. This is probably true of any research position past the postdoc level, though. It certainly was at National Lab.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

Prodigal -

Thanks for a starting a great discussion.

It is my observation that some newer PIs actually resent being taking away from the bench. It is not surprising considering the main qualification for getting a TT job is being good at benchwork and mastering new techniques. I do not believe this selects for the best potential team leaders and professors.

I love formulating science questions and proposing research plans. I love analyzing data and writing manuscripts. My biggest frustration as a postdoc is having to do all that pesky benchwork.

The best piece of advice I got as a new postdoc was "from day one, stop thinking like a student and start thinking like a PI" "stop thinking research projects and starting thinking research programs".

The average postdoc experience is an exploitation of a junior scientist. If a postdoc is just doing research they should be paid a salary in accordance with their experience.

A PhD should not need much mentoring on learning new techniques and doing research.

Not enough postdocs receive mentoring on developing research programs (something you need to think of in your first year as a postdoc), mentoring students, teaching, writing grants, or leadership.

Too many postdocs are treated as dispensable and highly qualified technicians generating data for their PIs. It works, but it is wrong!

prodigal academic said...

I left a longer comment over at your place, Dr. Girlfriend, but the quick summary is that I am not so sure that the average postdoc experience is exploitative. Sure, some are. But is it the average experience? I don't know.

I do know a large number of postdocs (my peer group--the postdocs I knew at PhD U and National Lab) who never intended to apply to the TT after their postdoc. Many of them wanted to change research directions before getting an industry job, so they wanted the opportunity to do almost exclusively research, and that is what they got.

Hope said...

@PA: There is lots of information out there about why you SHOULDN'T go with a newly minted adviser. We should get to air our side too! :-)

Hey, it’s your blog – air whatever side you want! :-)

I find it amusing that there was no shortage of people (mostly TT themselves, I’m guessing) to tell Dr. Girlfriend that she was generalizing unfairly when she claimed that new PI’s don’t make good mentors for postdocs, yet no one said “boo” when she made the equally egregious claim that new PI’s make the best mentors for grad students.

As a grad student, exchanges like these remind me to never lose sight of where the advice that I read on the internet comes from.

prodigal academic said...

@Hope

I think more people agree with the "new profs make the best mentors" claim. I know I do (and did before I became a prof). My mentor was winding down (he took 1 more student after taking 4 in my PhD cohort) and he was a pretty bad mentor.

He no longer really cared about his reputation/prestige, so he didn't go to many meetings. He certainly never took any of us (we went on our own). He didn't care about publishing, so he didn't push us or help us plan our research with publications in mind. In retrospect, it was a big mistake to pick someone so close to the end of his career. At least a new prof is STRONGLY, STRONGLY invested in their students' success, because that is their success as well.