Archive for: April, 2014

Does a "services rendered" model apply in academia?

Apr 10 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

So this is in response to a bit of a kerfuffle that, as far as I can tell, started with Dr24hours on twitter Tuesday night, picked up again Wednesday morning, and resulted in a  post over on his very worthwhile blog Infactorium called "Unpaid Work in Academia."  It concerns the exceptionally common scenario in which a trainee--be it an undergrad, grad student, or post-doc--moves on to the next phase of her career before every last data point she collected has been published. But it should be published, and so who's going to do the work to make that happen? In a nutshell, 24's argument is that if said trainee is somehow forced to write up all remaining manuscripts after she is no longer receiving a paycheck from the PI who supervised the research in question, then that trainee is being exploited.

I have a number of different thoughts about this.

First of all, yes. Nobody should be forced to do anything they don't want to do and that isn't required by a contract that they've signed. But let's talk for a second about the plausibility of being forced to write a manuscript. The only way I can imagine that this is something that actually happens in academia is if former PI threatens not to write any letters of recommendation for the trainee until the papers are in and published. That is a super shitty thing to do as a PI, and personally, I do not see this approach working well for either party in the long run.

But my primary question is, who needs to be blackmailed into writing up their own work?

I take issue with 24's implication that manuscript preparation is something you do for your PI, like a service rendered. While technically, yes, the legal tender direct deposited into your checking account each month is loosely related to the fact that you show up to pipette every day, and your PI is the closest thing to a boss you have, this work is also yours. Every time your name appears on a paper, all those western blots and recordings and dose-response curves define who you are as a scientist. To be clear, I am not arguing that these things are rewards or currency or take the place of real money. But they are important nonetheless, and they are not things that you simply give to your PI in exchange for US dollars, either. These things are a part of your narrative, and if your goal is to stay in academia, your narrative needs to have a bunch of papers in it. You should want these papers to be published, and care about them representing your work in the best way possible.

The question of whether you should be paid to work on these papers after you've formally started a new job is an interesting one, and I'm not sure there's a clear answer. If your job while in PI's lab was to carry out a project, was writing the manuscript a part of that job (meaning it was your responsibility to get it done while employed), or do you consider your salary/stipend to be payment only for whatever you happened to get done during your official employment? Because with the exception of technicians, academic positions are not hourly, so how do we define what counts as "above and beyond?" Grad students, post-docs, and PIs work (a lot of) non-traditional hours. Putting aside the issue of whether stipends and salaries should be higher in general, where do you draw the line? Should we be demanding time-and-a-half for any work we do outside of business hours? Should we put a monetary value on every assay and ANOVA? Some of my best science ideas have come to me during spin class (seriously, I have no idea why) - can I ask my university to reimburse my gym membership? Who do I charge for my time spent writing peer reviews?

My point is this: for better or for worse, what constitutes "work" in academia is nebulous (especially re: the concept of "percent effort" on grants, but that is another topic for another day), but if you're planning on staying, it is in your best interest to get yours done (it is also in your best interest to have a conversation with your PI on mutual expectations). Whether you push to get it done before your paycheck stops or do it after (while you are technically on another time clock) doesn't change the total amount of work you do or the amount of money you will earn for it, because that is simply not the pay structure of academic science.

(As an aside, I'll share this: I wrapped up all my post-doc publications before starting my TT job, and was then criticized in my first departmental review for not publishing anything, which could have only happened by writing up leftover post-doc data. So it is sometimes in your best interest to actively "save" some things to work on during transition times).

If, on the other hand, you are leaving academia, you have to be OK with leaving your work behind, too. Tell your former PI "Sorry, this isn't my work anymore. Give it to someone else." If your PI threatens to withhold LoRs if you don't do it, then that PI is most certainly a dick. Can't argue there. But it is also not worth buckling to your shitty PI's demands in order to get that LoR--you have to let it go. You have a new job and new supervisors who will write you LoRs in the future, and unless you were literally chained to the bench for the last few years,  you should know some other senior academic folks who could write an LoR in place of your PI.

Like in many other areas of life, I think there's a healthy dose of good faith to the way academic relationships work. I would never use my position of power to blackmail trainees into doing their work, but I also hope that they will work hard because they care about what they do. If they don't, I would much rather they just hand it off anyway - it's most likely best for everyone.

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Yep, it's hard - a guest post from iGrrrl

Apr 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

I love when excellent blogging leads to more excellent blogging, and I don't even have to do any of the blogging myself! Inspired by the amazing Potnia Theron's thoughtful post on the relationship between rejection and depression in academia, the brilliant and wise iGrrl had some thoughts of her own, which she has graciously put into sentence form for all of us. This is important stuff, folks. Read.


I had previously worked as a tech at the school where I matriculated, and one of my former PI's collaborators came up to me at the 'welcome new grad students' reception with a Why are you here? expression on his face. When I told him I was entering the neuroscience program, he said, "Ah! Getting your union card, I see." He was so right about the end product, but the process? When we're long past it, it's like childbirth: you forget how bad it is.

Being a student again was a shock. I'd gone back for my PhD at 30 after a peripatetic early adulthood. The intensity of that first year, the sense of how high the stakes were, of being molded into something very new and different, can be easily forgotten. I hated the more senior students who dismissively said, "It's fine, you'll get through it." I figured they'd just forgotten, like childbirth. I swore on a stack of Stryer; Kandel, Schwartz & Jessel; and all those journal articles I'd photocopied to read for class that when the next crop of grad students came in, I wouldn't feed them that dismissive line. I would tell them the truth: First year of grad school sucks, and is hard. Plenty of them thanked me for it, for recognizing that what they were going through was insane and hard.

And that's true, but the rest of graduate training is hard, too. I won't argue for a kinder, gentler PhD program. To survive in academic science, you have to learn to be in charge of your own education, to realize that you will be judged harshly for the rest of your career (grant review sheets, anyone?), etc., but you also have to find ways to deal with the self doubt and depression. It may be that not everyone experiences it, but most admit to experiencing some level of both after their second beer.

We joke that the only praise in academe is the absence of criticism, and that feeds into the problem that smart, competent people often have, which I'll call the anti-Dunning-Kruger effect. True Imposter Syndrome is the more extreme example of this, but it's that constant feeling that you're not measuring up, but you're not exactly sure what the standards are, or that they are unobtainable. There is no better way to for smart people to get depressed and self-doubting, and when the culture is that your work is your life and your self, research setbacks have an outsized impact. This changes with time and perspective, as Potnia Theron recently blogged, but when you're in the middle of it, well, let's just say that most of us deal with cortisol excess.

I spent years in grad school where I was angry all the time. The anger was a mask for depression. Lab work did not go well my first three years, and I had to switch projects. Having to throw away all of that work = life = self was infuriating and depressing. I started looking for other avenues to get any kind of positive feedback, so I developed on-line relationships in a tech community and wrote a terrible novel*, but those activities were 'distractions' from research. The combination of oblique comments from others and my own self scorn (born of buying into the work = life = self) just made everything worse.

I would never have finished my PhD if I hadn't taken two weeks completely off, visiting friends who were not scientists, learning to scuba dive, and hiking Oregon mountains. I went back with a sense of perspective that work was work, that the love of science was a part of my self, but not the whole thing. I was reminded of the world outside the hermetic bubble of graduate training, and that perspective allowed me to get out from under the anger and depression, buckle down, and get my union card.

*After writing a novel, writing a dissertation wasn't scary. So, no, I don't consider it a wasted effort w/r/t my time in grad school.

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