Day: August 6, 2016

Question from Reader: Junior Female Faculty as Supervisor of Similar-Age Male Trainees

A long-time reader (LTR), who just finished her second year on the tenure track in a STEM field at a major research institution, wrote to me, asking:

I would love to see a post on mentoring male postdocs, or more generally male trainees who aren’t much younger than you, as a starting professor. 

How do you convince them you have the same authority as their male PhD advisors? That you mean what you say, and that your requests aren’t suggestions? I notice the male faculty have no problem giving their new postdocs verbal advice or tasks and having it followed, but I’ve had two disasters already where postdocs refused to do any work and covered it up.”

“How do you determine if male postdocs will be respectful ahead of time and maintain productivity? Is there away to get around natural authority issues? I’ve lost quite a lot of start-up money already and there aren’t any tenured women in my department to ask.”

She has a postdoc who is a little over a year out of a PhD with her same-age, longtime male collaborator. The postdoc has not been making any progress on any of the postdoc projects and has been requesting a lot of vacation time. To compensate for poor progress on postdoc projects, he has been promising drafts of collaborative work done during PhD, but, when pushed and given specific deadlines, revealed that these drafts were nowhere near submission and in fact not based on publication-quality data. It also turns out he has been bypassing LTR completely and instead communicating with his PhD advisor alone about these drafts (while on LTR’s dime, of course).

My initial reaction was to cut losses and let him go as soon as possible, at which point LTR revealed that she worried about how it would look, since she had very bad luck with her first postdoc, whom she had to fire only a couple of months in, after he had committed expense-account fraud. She now worries that she will be viewed as a poor postdoc advisor, hard to please, or otherwise unreasonable. I completely understand how she feels, and I wish I could guarantee that she won’t be judged by her department colleagues the way she fears she will. I also know that a male junior professor in her shoes would not have the same fear, because men are not constantly in danger of being perceived as unreasonable, especially not when they display assertiveness or even anger. On the upside, once it’s tenure time, what will count most is papers and grants, and if her record is strong, nobody will care very much about early advising issues. But she has to do as much as she can with the startup he has left, which means she cannot afford to waste it on people who are not productive.

First, I think LTR got royally screwed by her longtime male collaborator, who was the postdoc’s PhD advisor. While it may be possible that sexism on the postdoc’s part plays a role, my reading is that this individual was always problematic — deceitful and lazy; there is no way this postdoc was an excellent graduate student. I asked LTR and she revealed that the PhD advisor was cagey when pressed on the issue by phone, and it turned out that the postdoc wouldn’t write his own papers even as a grad student. Dumping what you know is going to be a problematic postdoc (because he was a problematic grad student) on your longtime collaborator is extremely uncollegial; it is a completely douche move. You don’t do that to any colleague, and especially not to a collaborator, and worse yet a junior faculty member whose career can be completely derailed by poor initial hires. The first action item would be to put LTR’s male collaborator on the “selfish and untrustworthy” list. Sadly, I have met a number of rising stars or rising-star wannabes who are extremely self-serving; this fellow appears to be one of them. Maybe it’s not optimal to sever the collaboration right now, but I would definitely not consider him among the people who have my back. And would likely never again hire anyone else from his group.

Second, what to do with the postdoc who has nearly a year left on his contract?

The short answer is: a) Read the contract in great detail, as it will specify what you are able to do, and b) document all future interactions. Namely, when your subordinate, whom you are supposed to mentor and whose career you are supposed to help and nurture, behaves as a douche towards you, doesn’t do the work, and treats the position with you as an entitlement, the subordinate loses the benefits of advising and gets reduced to an employee, whose duties (and repercussions for shirking them) are spelled out in the contract.

Option 1) Sever ties as soon as possible. Many male colleagues would do just that. Look into the contract, see what it says you can do, what the cause is with which you can terminate. Usually these have some clauses for inadequate performance and some lead time before severance. Generally, you would have to have a written trail, which means dates by which something has to be done, then if not done a deadline for improvement with termination following if not improved, finally followed by termination.

Option 2) Ride out the contract, while attempting to get as much work out of this person as possible, with as little emotional involvement on your part. Considering that LTR is worried that firing a postdoc would look bad, I would advise this option, while getting all business with this individual. First, set very firm boundaries and deadlines for him, with repercussions in writing (email is fine) in terms of gradual salary reduction if possible for not meeting them, or losing vacation time, or even severance. No more “mister nice LTR.”

Both options require a paper trail, firm deadlines with specific tasks, and documented repercussions. They differ in whether you want to terminate or you want to hurt first (reduce earnings) to get some work out rather than terminate right away.

I know this sounds very cruel, but as I say, “This is not a game, we are not playing science. We are doing science professionally.” There is actual money and time involved.

I wish I could say that I no longer have issues with disrespectful trainees. They don’t happen as much as they did when I was younger, but they do happen. People see that you are nice and friendly, and mistake it for weakness and perhaps stupidity. Then when you get all Robocop on them, they are taken by surprise. But, as a wise woman once said, “Better a bitch than a doormat.” Of course, “bitch” here means just being assertive, i.e., a behavior that would not raise any eyebrows if exhibited by a man.

What is different once you are senior, and what LTR will get better at with experience, is: a) identifying group members who are a good fit, b) being able to swiftly act to remedy a problematic situation because you have encountered a similar situation before (good news — trouble comes in a finite number of flavors), c) being a better mentor and being able to get useful work from people who are less than ideally motivated, d) not being pressed for time like on the tenure track and thus having more breathing room.

Is there any way to predict who’s going to work out as postdoc? Ideally you know the person while they are a grad student, have heard them give talks, and they come from a trusted colleague. But unless I am confident the postdoc would be a good one, I find it’s better to rely on graduate students, because after 2-3 years a grad student I have trained is better at the work we do than a random postdoc. While having a great postdoc is a blessing for the group, hiring a postdoc is risky in general — if the match is bad, the postdoc’s career can be ruined for good, and they are not cheap. I know biomedical fields rely on postdocs, but in many physical sciences it is not necessary to have a postdoc in the group once you have an established pipeline with some senior grad students. I have always been much more comfortable with this approach.

How do you ensure someone is respectful? That’s tough. You can’t make someone be respectful — they either are or they aren’t. I have had many respectful male group members; I don’t write about them on the blog often, because they don’t give me headaches. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most respectful and easy-to-work-with students have come from the countries that are very patriarchal. For instance, I have had several students who are more or less moderate Muslims from the Middle East; they have had excellent technical skills and have been nice to work with. I have also worked quite well with folks from different parts of Asia (some religious, some not). In my experience, the most difficult young men that I have worked with have been from the US and some parts of Western Europe. These guys have exceedingly high opinions of themselves, their knowledge and abilities. Often, they are indeed excellent and some of the conceit is warranted, but I am not going to kiss their a$$; they may be capable, but they are not omniscient and they are sometimes (often?) wrong; also, I am the boss and that point seems to need emphasizing quite bluntly for some of them. Often, it is enough to say something along the lines of, “It seems you think you don’t have anything to learn from me and my group, and don’t seem to respect me as your advisor. You are free to leave and join a group where you feel you can learn something, I am not stopping you. Take a few days to think if you want to leave the group. If you decide that want to stay, things will have to be considerably different. We will talk again on [a specific day].” That’s generally been enough to shake people up.

Ideally, we all like each other and do science together. The trainees don’t have to like me, but should ideally not hate me, because if you hate your advisor, you should really find another one. What’s not negotiable is that we should all act professionally, do our jobs, and respect each other. Me being nice and accommodating is a privilege, not an entitlement. After all, I control the money, and there is a reason why I am in this position; those who think I don’t have anything to teach them or who think I am not worthy of their respect are certainly not entitled to my time or funds. There are other people who can do their job. There are plenty of smart people in the world.

Robocop out.

LTR, best of luck!

Blogosphere, please share your thoughts in the comments.