Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I have been reading a couple of academic type of blogs lately. One of the blogs is written by a pretty bitter Post Doc, who seems to hate every aspect of life. A comment that she made caught my attention, though - that Post Docs do all of the work and the person in charge takes all of the credit. I wrote a comment on this and she deleted it. Nice. Oh, well. So, I thought I would write some words about it here....

First of all, some people call the boss person the "PI". This means Principal Investigator, which implies that the person has won a grant from someplace and is in charge of that grant. They hire students and Post Docs and research scientists to "do the work", while they sit around and do nothing. Or, I should say, this may be a commonly held belief by the people who are slaving away.

About 10 years ago, when I was a fresh person out of my Ph.D., I felt pretty much the same way. The guy that I worked for was never at work and I had to do everything. He then read over everything that I did and had me do little changes here and there. He didn't care whether those changes were actually simple or whether they made it so I had to redo everything. I didn't ever notice him actually doing anything, so I was pretty bitter about the whole thing.

Interestingly, when I got to my current job, the PI was even more distant than the other guy - in that he didn't order me around very much at all, but, at the same time, he didn't even pretend to do any of the "real work". I didn't seem to mind this at all, since he trusted me to do good work and left me to it. We actually had a few people who were "advisers" on the grants, which seemed to me, meant that they got a month worth of salary and didn't do anything.

So, with these notions in mind, let's talk about credit - when work is done, who should get the credit for this work?

There are a few answers to this:

1. The person who does the actual work. This is most likely the post doc or the graduate student who is in charge of running the model, crunching through data, doing lab experiments, and/or making plots to show the scientific result. Why should they get the credit? Well, they did the work.

2. The person who wrote the proposal to get money to hire the person who does the work. This person is often the person that comes up with the idea for the experiment or simulation or data analysis that is done. Why should this person get the credit? Well, if that person didn't write the proposal or come up with the idea, it would never have been done. In some ways, you can think of this person as being the the main company, while the person who does the work is the "same" as a line worker or a bank teller or ... (I don't actually agree with this analogy, but I can image that people would make it.)

3. Both. The both contribute to the effort. Is it equal? I am not sure. It probably depends on the situation.

One thing that should be kept in mind also, is that the graduate student or post doc is actually in a learning role, while the PI is in an instructional role. Part of their JOB is to guide the person to the next level of development, which includes things like carrying out experiments (though, numerical, laboratory, etc), writing papers, critical thinking, understanding of the level of importance of results, problem solving, etc, for graduate students. For post docs, there is a hope that many of these things are at a pretty advanced stage, but they most likely have never written a proposal before, and may need help thinking of research plans from a beginning stage to a conclusion stage (instead of having someone lay it out for them).

Here is how thing work in my group: I try to allow my students to take responsibility for as much of the science as possible (as much as I feel like they can handle). At first, I give them pretty menial tasks to do, since they don't know how to run the codes that we use or visualize things. I need to get to know what they are capable of doing, so this is a way to accomplish this goal. At the next stage, we talk about the science that they want to do. I suggest things areas and see if they are interested. If they are, then we talk about more specific broader projects for them to work on. If we settle on one of these, I let them "play" with the problem, and help them whenever they need assistance (in interpretation, coding, etc). If they hate the project or we are going towards a dead end, I suggest different things to do. We work back and forth until they have something that is scientifically viable. They then write that up. I edit the crap out of it (literally), then they rewrite. I edit, they rewrite. I edit, the rewrite. Repeat until happy. They are then the first author on the paper, and I am the second author. I also encourage them to present as many talks as possible at meetings. I would rather have them show their face with the research than me show my face.

I feel that this is an extremely fair method of mentoring for students. They gain experience in (a) doing science, (b) writing papers, (c) presenting talks, and (d) figuring out where to go on a project.

I am quite lucky that the university counts student first author papers and PI second author papers as a paper for me. This means that I can spend time helping students with papers and give them authorship, while I also get some credit at the university. In the field, you could argue that it looks like I don't write any papers, but that really isn't true either. People in the field know that you helped to guide the science, and what you really want to convey to the community is that you know how to pick good science topics, and you have a team that is quite capable of producing good results.

Now, what this can appear to look like from both inside and the outside of your research group is that you are not pulling your weight. You don't write very many papers, you don't do much work on the modeling and research, and you end up asking students and post docs for their results, so you can present at meetings (to me, this feels like "stealing" results).

I think that what the people in the group have to know is that you do pull your weight by (a) selling the research - i.e., getting grants to continue the research; (b) selling the group - i.e., presenting at meetings to show that the group is doing really good stuff; and (c) teaching them to do science. I personally feel like, if you are not doing those jobs, then you are not pulling your weight. But, if you are, then you are really doing your job.

So, to graduate students and post docs out there who are amazingly bitter towards their "boss", I would have to say that you should look at all of the things that they are doing and ask yourselves, what would happen to me if they were to disappear. If the answer is nothing, then you may be right to complain. If very bad things would happen, then they are probably doing (at least) some part of their job correctly.


Raven_King said...

One part I think you leave out is like the famous story of the $10,000 coding change. In that story an IT company calls in a consultant to save a crashed DB they can't get started. He walks in, looks over the code, makes a one line change and viola it boots. He then sends a bill for $10K. The boss is infuriated and demands an itemized bill, which arrives as: coding change 1-line $1, knowing which line $9,999.
A good adviser is using his/her knowledge to help you avoid black holes and probably giving up some of their good research ideas that they know will bear fruit. I've found knowing where to dig a hole is at least as valuable as knowing how to work a shovel.

madscientist said...

Very good point.

Dr Wingtip said...

Your post gets to the core of being a professor who "does research": not actually being able to "do" the research. The student or postdoc is frustrated because the boss is showing their results at meetings, but the dirty truth is that boss is also frustrated with this situation because he (or she, but let's assume that it's you Dr Crabby) used to do this work himself and now cannot. Actually, I see this frustration as a good thing. I think that it motivates me to be sure to acknowledge those that actually did the work. If I ever lost this frustration, I fear that I would become callous and forgetful of the student's frustration with the arrangement. I fear that I would become the mean boss, like the one you cite from the post doc's blog.