Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Good science or politics?

I have recently been having an inner debate about writing papers for scholarly journals at this point in my career.  Let us assume that I am talking from the standpoint that I would like to become a professor in the future.  As a postdoc, publishing papers is the main metric used to determine your scientific prowess.  Of course, there are other things like grant writing and institution/PI prestige, but the first thing used to judge a postdoc is the papers on their CV.  Getting papers published is the only thing (let's forget about grants for now) that gives a postdoc any kind of tangible credit.

First of all, let me define what I personally believe entitles someone to being included as an author on a manuscript:

1.  Direct writing of the paper
2.  Idea conception
3.  Performing experimental work involved in obtaining the data for the paper
4.  The PI (that's the reason I have a job and it is their lab).
5.  Finally, if I have had many discussions with someone encompassing many aspects of the field I am working in and the discussions help to bring new things to light or broaden my knowledge, then I believe that person is entitled to credit by being included on a paper.

A couple things have come to light during the past few years of my postdoc career:

1.  Is there value in helping other people with their projects?

Short answer:  No.

During my Ph.D. and most of my postdoc, I generally would help grad students and other researchers with concepts or methods that I had developed or with which I had more expertise.  This could mean anywhere from reading over and editing a paper (half a day or more) to tailoring a specific method to work for that person's project (on the order of weeks).  I think I was a generally nice person and I didn't mind helping, and also I assumed that doing work for someone else meant that I would be included as an author.  As I have found out, many people do not share my views of authorship, and I can think of 4 papers in the last two years that I have contributed significantly to in which I have not been given credit.  Recently, as I started my 'new' postdoc (about a year ago), I took up the role of 'second-in-command' of my PI's lab, and that meant helping grad students and undergrads with their projects.  Naturally, because I helped them, I should get some kind of credit for it (i.e. included as an author) right?  But it didn't happen.  The fact is, I am not the PI, so I shouldn't be bothered to help with these projects that don't directly involve me.  I'm not supervising these people anyway.

Getting burned multiple times is no fun, and subsequently I have turned down many opportunities to help other people in the lab.  Is this healthy?

2.  How much emphasis should be placed on writing papers that have significant impact, are interesting, and are all-around considered 'good science'?

Short answer:  Not much.

As a postdoc trying to build a CV, you need to get credit for absolutely everything that has worked out.  I have often heard in our lab, "Just do the simple thing that you know will work out so you can get it published."  That means that interesting work that might actually be useful but takes substantial effort is not undertaken because it would amount to only one good, solid paper as opposed to three or four papers based on 'simple' approaches.  This is the political argument.  A postdoc needs many papers, and so they should manipulate the system in any way possible by doing the smallest amount of work to get the most amount of papers.  There have also been many times in the lab that a friend (or significant other) of the author is included - for no other reason.  It used to make me quite mad when this happened.  And now I am starting to think, "Why not?"  If you can get your name on something that easily, then go for it.

It's all so bizarre.  I have gone from someone who was generally helpful to someone who dodges students/other researchers around the office in an effort to keep my time focused on my project and not to dilute it with other people's problems (doesn't that sound awful?).  I have swallowed the political pill - trying to squeak out another paper from the least amount of work.  This means I am not pursuing things that I find interesting, or that the field as a whole would find interesting.  Don't misunderstand me, I have known for quite some time that my work is not 'important' to the general public or to the field for that matter, as I think most reasonable researchers find out at some time or another while they are submitting papers to obscure journals that no one reads.  If, by chance, I do any kind of work for someone else, it is with the caveat that if there is an outcome to their project (i.e. a paper) that I will be included as an author.

As I write this, it seems that I have been turned into some kind of devil, an asshole, if you will, that avoids human interaction for fear that my precious time and efforts will not be given credit.  Now we add my affection towards being done with a postdoc career (and academia altogether) and what do you get?  I feel as though I am living someone else's life.  That my personality has been irreparably changed.  It's a bit scary.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New considerations

Here are some recent ramblings, exploring my thoughts, from a five-year (going on six) postdoc (I apologize in advance):

It has been almost a year since I started to apply to non-academic jobs.  I got a bit frustrated in the last while with my lack of success, and I only sent off one application in the past three months.

So, I evaluated things some more, and I came to the realization that I need to keep all my applications restricted to the industry in which I have some training.  I won't be sending out any of those long-shot applications, and even though jobs only come up maybe once or twice per month in this particular niche, at least I can be confident that I have some of the things the employers might want.  Plus, it is a lot less work doing 2 applications per month than 20 - namely cover letter/resume tailoring and research of the potential company and position.  I still know that I hardly have any chance even in my field, which is still depressing.  At any rate, I submitted 3 applications so far this month, and one of them is for a professorship.  Oops.  I am not sure how that slipped in there, but the bleak market for jobs makes any job (professorship or not) in my field semi-attractive.  Or maybe not.  I think part of it is I just want to be successful and get an offer - to finally get to the end of a job process.  Do you know what I mean?  Even if that means a job in academia - maybe I can actually get an offer?

Stupid academia.

There is still the option of staying where I am at and continuing ad nauseum in a never-ending postdoc role, with the caveat that I secure the necessary funding for my position.  But the pay sucks.  What I mean to say is:  the pay sucks.  Did I say that already?  Well it does.  Is it possible to actually be a 'career postdoc', or a 'professional postdoc'?  Is that actually a career?  How long can someone stay a postdoc?  Any postdoc lifers out there?

It's not sustainable.  I still think at some point it needs to change, and I know that I need to do some sort of applying, to academic jobs or otherwise, in order to produce that change.  And so, I suppose I will continue down the application road, albeit at a much slower pace.

There is also something about just applying that I think is good.  I have applied to so many jobs in the past year that I am immune (not really) to rejection.  Therefore, the point of applying now for me is to keep hope alive; I can continue to hope that one of the applications might actually turn out.  And if I get rejected?  (Or forgotten, I should say, as most of the time I don't even get any notice).  Well, I guess I am assuming before I hit the 'submit' button that it will be rejected.

But at the same time...  is there hope still there, somewhere inside my silly self?  Hope and academia are quite similar in many ways.  They tease you.  They make you feel better than you are (at times).  They both lead you down roads that probably will not pay off in the end.

I have a new best friend... logic.  I'll try to frame my mind solely on logic.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Unfortunately, the theme of my last post remains.  I submitted only one application in the last three months.  Apparently, I had an 'in' - I already knew four or five people working there (some relatively well), I had all of the qualifications listed in the ad, and it was an industrial position for something I am trained in.  (Ok, the only thing I am formally trained in!)  I did manage to get a phone interview, and it seemed to go quite well, but I didn't make the shortlist for the on-site interviews.  It was kind of strange; I was quite confident I would at least get to the next step.

At this point, it still feels as though I am heavily under-utilized in what I am currently doing as a postdoc.  I am not sure how to explain it, but it just feels like this particular path was not meant to be, in addition to the lack of any jobs out there.  I am positive I still enjoy science - that is for sure.  But when I begin to examine myself seriously, I almost find it comical that I ended up where I am.  The things I do well and correctly are either unnoticeable by my superiors/colleagues, or they just get stolen - in the academic sense - and bastardized into another project.  I find it incredibly frustrating how minor tasks unfold so slowly, with tiny improvements (<~5%) being the only outcome.

Anyway, in terms of a different career, I am pretty sure there isn't one, and I suppose it is just a matter of accepting the cards I was dealt (if that is possible).  Remember back in high school, when the world was your oyster, and you could do anything you wanted?  Remember how difficult it was to make a decision to go down a particular path because there were so many from which to choose?  In a sense, it seems like only yesterday as I haven't accomplished much (outside the 'meaningless' academic world) during those fifteen years, but it is also incredibly distant - like some kind of fantasy world fading from my memory.

Well, another year is upon us.