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Disappointinig postdoc experience

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Naming names, letters.. is a no no

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Apr 20, 2006 4:04 pm

"Naming names and publishing confidential letters here merits immediate censorship, pro or con."

Just follow the posted guidelines on this forum, that's all we ask. We don't post anything here which has the potential to be libelous.

Please think of this site as an online Career Day meeting at your institution. Would you stand up in the audience of the auditorium, point to a senior faculty member, and spout off some nasty editorial comments, even if they were true? Nope. Most mentally healthy individuals would not do that. THIS IS WHAT THE FORUM IS ALL ABOUT. Thank you.


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Naming names, letters.. is a no no

Postby Elizabeth » Thu Apr 20, 2006 7:03 pm

When I was a postdoc, I hated my PI saying, "You guys don't understand what it takes to run this lab." Ditto for my mother for "You never understand what parents go through until you have your own." Now that I'm a junior faculty, and I spend less time doing experiments myself but more time worrying about somebody else's experiments. Reagents not working, proper controls missing, oh, why can't you do it right!? Same for the grant parts postdocs write. You ask a postdoc to summarize his experiments so that they can go into the preliminary result section of the grant, but he writes mostly about the background of the whole field and critical details of his experiments are missing. I have to go back to him, get the exact details I need, and rewrite pretty much the whole thing.

No, no, I'm not complaining. Long back when I was a little girl, I promised to myself that I won't say certain things when I grow up. One of them is "You never understand what parents go through until you have your own." But maybe I can change my mind once in a while.
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Naming names, letters.. is a no no

Postby CJH » Thu Apr 20, 2006 8:22 pm

"No money = no science" (by Jay)
..is sooo true and is the single most important message I believe should be emphasized on this forum, especially since (as one postdoc in the lab puts it "hundreds of RO1's are being dropped in Iraq on a daily basis"!). Kelly effectively illustrated this "simple reality" in one of her responses. To summarize, someone in the lab has to maintain a steady "income" for the well being of all occupants of the lab. And who would do that? the PI.

However, that being said, I really do feel bad for MJP as well, as the PI should not have made false promises. It seems to me that the best senario would be to carry out a postdoc with a mentor that already work in a field that you plan to spend at least 7-8 years in (2-3 for postdoc + 4-5 for first grant as junior faculty). But I suspect that MJP did exactly that (only difference is that he planned for industry).

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say it here Elizabeth

Postby Kelly » Thu Apr 20, 2006 8:32 pm

This is one of the places where describing the woes of PI'dom can have benefits, not for woe-ing but for helping older post-docs out there understand how to make the transition and maybe get younger ones to start to cut the PI a bit of slack on some things.

For example, MJP's guy probably didn't mean to lie. he probably had the expectation that MJP would be able to do his NRSA project. But sometimes, it just doesn't happen. I have had to "go back" on a project issue before. Things just happened and we need to make a change. I tried not to make it a mystery: I told them; I am in this jam, I need you to take this other thing on for me, I will try to make it up to you later but right now we really need X to get done. We got X done (about 3 weeks ago) and are now back to the regular plan. It stinks when you have to do this on a personal level, most PIS do not feel too good about it and I know it is disappointing to the trainee on a project level.
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unpopular opinion

Postby Leigh » Thu Apr 20, 2006 9:31 pm

I understand that as a postdoc (trainee), you have to do what your mentor wants in regards to your project. I realize that PIs are under extreme pressure more than ever with the current funding situation. The few times I get to interact with my boss, I realize the chaos, the pressure, and the miracle our lab is still functioning. I wish the academic system would reward PIs for being good mentors (ie give incentives for this to happen), because we (trainees) would greatly benefit.
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unpopular opinion

Postby Kelly » Thu Apr 20, 2006 10:01 pm

My Master's advisor was a reasonable name and good mentor. My PhD supervisor was a big name and not at all a mentor, more of a tormentor. My first post-doc advisor was a pretty big name and did little/no mentoring (he had a big lab and was a chairperson but I got what I went there for).

My second post-doc mentor was a young person and with all of the above under my belt, he was a pretty good mentor for ME but for some others it hasn't done so well. So it really depends on the fit.

There is no requirement for mentoring, you are right about that. It is left up to the individual PI. But the person whose lab you are in doesn't have to be your mentor. My mentors other than 1 and 4 have been from outside my research labs.
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Failure of expectations

Postby Emil Chuck » Thu Apr 20, 2006 11:00 pm

I think this thread has been very interesting. What it points out to me is that there is a failure of communicating expectations in scientific training. It is similar to the frustrations subordinates have with the obstinance of their managers. Of course, there is very little that is done in an academic setting to make the working relationship work... it's just all about the grants, the pubs, and the experiments.

How do you actually measure mentoring? How do you know your mentor is giving you "quality" mentoring? That's a tough question... but not an impossible one to answer.
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Failure of expectations

Postby Val » Fri Apr 21, 2006 12:17 am

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Failure of expectations

Postby P.C. » Fri Apr 21, 2006 6:02 am

If a subordinate in an academic setting is unhappy with the mentoring they recieve, they can always vote with their feet. I knew 4 graduate students that were unhappy with their alcoholic professor who was being less than engaged in their projects, so they all quit working for him. Last week I saw one of those students give a killer presentation with the title of Full professor.
It is also possible to work for the disappointing advisor in name only. Find mentoring by working in collabortion with someone else. I knew one PhD student of the alcoholic professor that actually did most of his work in another lab for another professor , but kept the drunk as his his official chief advisor because that guy had connections and a big name. He must have developed his soft skills further as he went on to a major plant scientist industry company (begins with an M, then an O, ) and then become Vice President of research for a research branch of a major seed and lawn supply company, where they are trying to produce GMO lawn plants.
Added note, sadly my darling ex-wife went to work for the alcoholic professor against my advice, hence leading in part to her ex status.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Failure of expectations

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Apr 21, 2006 7:03 am

To Val's point about power disparity and other things, I have to go back a bit into discussing what the managerial environment is of a research laboratory. Actually all I do is go back to managerial/organizational behavior theory.

So the question points at how a laboratory is run. A lab is like any other multiperson organization. Whoever the "leader" is sets the tone for the rest of the subordinates. If we're looking at the military or the police, there's a sargeant commanding the subordinates to execute orders. Well, with that comes a particular mindset of the assumptions the manager has about the needs of the subordinates. What motivates a subordinate? What will make the subordinate an efficient member of my team? What does the subordinate need to know? The manager's assumptions are then carried out in his/her managerial style over the subordinates.

Douglas Macgregor wrote a book in 1960 about corporate climates and managerial systems in "The Theory of Enterprise." In it, he discusses two major groups of organizations. The first group runs using "Theory X". As I write in my paper (that I am distributing at the NPA meeting Saturday): In short, managers in Theory X saw their average subordinate as being interested solely in money and job security, being self-centered and unconcerned about the company, and would rather have his/her duties be dictated to them rather than share responsibility. Consequently, Theory X managers motivate their employees by either threatening punishment (coercion, implicit threats, close supervision, and other “command and control” techniques) or providing passive incentives (seeking a harmonious solution hoping that the employee will cooperate). Essentially, the employee is simply expected to fulfill the job description and is perceived as “another pair of hands” than can be easily replaced. As a result, high turnover and dissatisfaction are characteristic signs of a Theory X business.

The other group of businesses (which were rare at the time of Macgregor's publication) used "Theory Y" techniques. In it: The managers expected each employee to decide his/her own work objectives and seek responsibility. Commitment to their objectives was rewarded with opportunities to address higher needs, such as self-fulfillment. In this environment, creativity and ingenuity become trademark characteristics of all employees, and both managers and subordinates equally participate in performance appraisals to establish new work objectives.

That's why one cannot put a blanket statement on "all big name PI's are bad" or that "all graduate students or postdocs wouldn't understand the trouble PI's go through." If we begin to accept that each stakeholder may actually want things to work in the laboratory with his/her own individual skills, then we can change the mindset from "slavedriver" to "colleague" easily. Postdocs should not be shielded from the problems PI's have in managing a research program; they're going to need those skills when they launch their own labs. Within certain limits of decorum and professionalism, PI's should not be afraid of sharing their delights and frustrations with an academic life. Developing a scientific culture of trust -- a Theory Y scientific culture -- starts with one PI, one department, one dean, and one institution. It may take a large number of years and a lot of persistence, but if there is a commitment to this change, it will happen. So challenge your assumptions about the way interpersonal interactions are "supposed to be" in your laboratory... organizational theory predicts that you will be happier about it.
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