Thursday, October 29, 2009

Clone wars

It seems like more than 9 days has passed since my last blog post. The past week has been pretty crazy with several very long days/nights in the lab, urgent experiments getting dumped in my lap at the last minute, struggling with my own long experiments--you know, the usual travails of the typical postdoc (or grad student). Throw in there a program retreat with a large number of grad students (meaning late night after-parties and thus < 8 h sleep over two nights) and a minor medical procedure that, among other things, required me to give up real food and coffee for >40 h (the latter was painful-literally) and be up at some godforsaken hour this morning. Upon discharge, I was instructed to go home, rest, and avoid 'activities that require you to think or act quickly'. So I think that leaves sleeping, watching crappy daytime TV , re-reading Harry Potter, and blogging. I've hit 2; I'll get to the others later.
It starts at the top, with the administrators and the PIs. It then filters down to the lower ranks--the postdocs, the grad students, the research associates. It really is an insidious plague. And despite the dramatically different landscape, the acknowledgment of its presence, the discussions of alternatives, it still continues to spread. I am referring to the ridiculous assertion that success as a scientist requires one to remain in academia. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization. Yes, there (probably) are PIs out there who are happy with whatever career choice their trainees make, so long as their trainees are happy with the decision.

But there remains a pervasive attitude that if you are a productive student/postdoc and leave academia to pursue other career options, then you made a mistake or cracked under the pressure or some other term equated with failure. (Chall was recently the center of this perception at her new job.) In many graduate programs, you're essentially presented with two career options: research in industry or research in academia. And many PIs seem to consider a move to industry as the ultimate betrayal (after all, Pfizer and Merck are actually run by Voldemort and Darth Vader, right?).

It's satisfying to have someone follow in your footsteps, so to speak, to want what you have, to create 'clones' of yourself. Some PIs, though, can't seem to understand why on earth any good trainee would want something other than a tenure-track position at an R1 university. Some even seem to take it as a personal insult that a trainee would choose any other path. Some go so far as to tell their trainees that they will be wasting their lives, should they choose something else.

Now I think I've made my career aspirations pretty clear. I do want the students, the postdocs, the lab (even if it's in a basement somewhere)... but that is my decision. I don't assume that every other postdoc or grad student wants that. There are two innate problems with making such an assumption.

The first is practical: There simply are not enough faculty positions available for every trainee. So by telling your trainees that a tenure-track position is the only worthwhile job out there and pushing them toward that career path, you're setting them up for failure. Depending on how deeply that notion gets ingrained, your trainee may find impossible to be truly happy with any other job because your voice is always in the back of her (or his) mind reminding her of where she went wrong, that she couldn't make it, that she failed.

The second is personal, but may come as a shock to some PIs: Not every individual with a Ph.D. wants to run his/her own lab at an R1. Furthermore (and you may want to sit down for this one), not every individual with a Ph.D. wants to stay in research. The reasons for not wanting to start a lab or not wanting to stay in research are vast. Too vast to even tackle here. Occasionally a trainee may simply lack confidence, and a word of encouragement may be just what he or she needs to start down that path. However, a PI shouldn't pressure anyone to pursue an academic research career just because he/she thinks it's the right decision for that trainee.


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7 comments:

EthidiumBromide said...

This is an issue that really aggrivates me. Both the other graduate student in the lab and myself do not intend to stay in academia. We don't want to spend our lives writing grants and begging for funding in pediatric oncology. We are both actually considering law school for biotech patent law, or at least heading in the direction of industry. And neither of us can tell the two PIs of the lab this, because we are too afraid of their reaction.

There isn't really the funding for science to "grow" right now, so each PI will theoretically be replaced by just one graduate student -- two, if the population of PIs doubles over the course of an academic career. Labs around here churn out 20+ graduate students. So if some of those other individuals WANT to leave, why is that such a bad thing? Why do all 20 need to fight for just one or two positions?

Dr Becca, PhD said...

While I don't believe this accounts entirely (or even necessarily substantially) for the attitude, PIs do have a financial stake in their trainees remaining in academia. When their post-docs and grad students apply for training grants, the mentor's success in "creating" academics out of their previous trainees factors into the funding decision.

I had just started grad school when my PI's first grad student defended her thesis, only to take a job as a medical ghost writer. My PI was sooo disappointed, and it left a real impression on me. I have no plans to leave academia, but I fear what her response would be should I decide, several years down the road, to take another route.

I have many friends from grad school who've left their post-docs to take jobs in law, publishing, non-profit, and NIH administration. I'm so proud of them, and sometimes a little bit jealous of their salaries.

biochem belle said...

EtBr - Unfortunately you and your labmate aren't alone. My graduate adviser was quite vocal about his opinions of jobs outside the academic research track. A consequence of these attitudes is that trainees rarely learn about any career options outside of academic or industry research.

Dr Becca - You make a valid point, but I've seen this attitude among senior, tenured, well-funded faculty. They have the money to support their trainees in the absence of training grants. So the only reason for a trainee to apply for a fellowship is to establish an 'independent' funding track record.

It's fine for a PI and a trainee to discuss the trainee's career path, but we've each described situations where trainees are not comfortable with that discussion (unless they're heading down Tenure Track Road).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Dr Becca - You make a valid point, but I've seen this attitude among senior, tenured, well-funded faculty. They have the money to support their trainees in the absence of training grants. So the only reason for a trainee to apply for a fellowship is to establish an 'independent' funding track record.

This is ridiculous. Just because a PI is already "well-funded" doesn't mean that she doesn't have an extremely powerful incentive to free-up funds via trainee fellowships so that she can use it for other things.

biochem belle said...

PhysioProf - Alright, alright. Maybe some PIs can never have *enough* money, regardless of how many grants they have. So they'd rather push their trainees to spend a couple of months writing a fellowship that has < 1 in 3 chance of being funded (1 in 5 if they decide you should apply for a career transition award).

My point (which I didn't get across), in short, is I'm not convinced that fellowships are a driving force behind the mentality discussed here. It doesn't make much sense to me to push a trainee to pursue tenure-track positions (when he/she doesn't want it) just so he/she can apply for 2 more years of postdoc funding under a career transition award.

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

Ok, so trainee funding is the real driving force behind the desiring of mini-me's? I guess it makes sense as a lot of things boil down to money, but... I don't know. That still doesn't feel like money is the only driving force behind this cloning desire.

biochem belle said...

I think the current stand is that trainee funding may be a contributing factor-possibly significant in certain situations. I'm not convinced that it's the driving force in all, and maybe not even most, cases.