wally had a tricky question:
I wondered if you could help me with a dilemma. I’m currently a postdoc and at the outset of my postdoc started working in an area that is woefully underresearched in a specific population of people – like literally only two people are doing this kind of research, but they don’t have the sample I have to really do it justice. I was super excited when I found this area because it seemed like it could really help me establish a strong program of research in a space where few people were working (but that is critically important), and I got an F32 to support my work. My mentor has been increasingly becoming interested in this area and is now writing an R01 to fund a study basically overlapping my work and using novel methods I had planned to do in my NIH K (which my mentor knows bc my K is drafted already).
I have expressed concerns about this on multiple occasions, but they don’t see the issue. I’m worried because if that grant is funded, I will no longer have a clear independent area of research. I’m worried because any postdocs or students they take on will be then working in my area. I’m worried because my mentor is asking other people to work on projects in this area with them – whereas I had previously been taking the lead on all projects in this area of research. Finally, my mentor is communicating with experts who focus on this area of research in other populations. I had connected with these people with the idea that they could be collaborators for me – but instead my mentor is having them be consultants on their grant, and having phone calls with them to learn more about this area, but not even including me (and it could have been a really good training opportunity for me).
Also (sorry, this is long!) – I am writing a foundation grant extending my research. My mentor said last night they wanted to do a presentation this summer that is exactly what I am proposing in Aim 2 of this grant. My mentor knows this bc they have read drafts of the application. They just don’t see this as an issue.
I feel like I need to change my area of research because I just won’t be able to argue that I am an independent researcher when I apply for a K – and I am frankly so upset by this it is affecting our relationship. But part of the issue is that I am right at the beginning of a 3-year F32 focusing on this area of research – and just starting to establish myself in this area of research (one pub and a few presentations). I’ve been assured I’m not overreacting to this (although my emotional reactions aren’t helpful) by another mentor – but talking to my current mentor just is doing nothing. And they are so immersed in this literature now that there is no way they won’t apply for the R01 (and I am pretty sure it will be funded). Any help would be more than welcome.
Let me start with a disclaimer. We’ve had questions like this in the blogosphere on occasion. I already know there are people who will say that no one can expect from anyone else to just not pursue a line of work, that it’s free for all, that everyone does what they want kind of thing. There are also people who will say that since the ideas were generated in wally’s advisor’s lab, they aren’t really wally’s ideas and that nothing is wrong.
However, this is not how it sounds to me. I have seen more than once people just taking other people’s ideas in a collaboration and running with them. Who the ideas belong to and who gets to run with them is a tricky issue, but in my experience this issue is much more gray than it needs to be because some very opportunistic people have very flexible ethics and a great capacity for self-delusion. While sure, there’s gray, more often it’s not the issue of people’s ideas meshing and it being hard to figure out whose idea it was. More often it’s the case where it’s plenty clear whose idea something was, and the person whose idea it was not (but who had a connection with the person whose idea it was) ran with the idea anyway as if they had full ownership of it simply because they wanted to.
I am inclined to believe wally that exactly what they described happened. The mentor is over-reaching and is not looking out for wally’s best interest because they are too busy thinking about their own best interest. They might justify it to themselves one way or another, but the truth is they wanted to do it and they did it, and now wally is screwed.
Also, as is the case with 95% of all people who’ve ever overstepped someone else’s boundary or stolen something they really shouldn’t have from someone close, they know what they did, and on some level if not fully consciously they know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway because they are selfish, don’t regard the person they are wronging as worthwhile of full consideration, whathaveyou. But they know, they just think they can get away with it without so much as being made to feel uncomfortable by a confrontation, likely counting on the power differential. Therefore, when you confront them, they make you feel like you are over-reacting, have no sense of humor, don’t see the whole picture, basically good old-fashioned gaslighting. Assume that you are not wrong and the person seeming like a thieving asshole is indeed a thieving asshole. wally’s mentor is a thieving asshole.
When my former postdoc who’s now nearing the end of his tenure track left, I stopped working on a specific direction of research. Every time he sent me a proposal to comment on, I would make a note that these problems were not something I would go after. The very least I can do is remove myself from direct competition if I am really his ally. He is trusting me to give him feedback on his ideas, of course I am not going to steal them and write my own proposals on them. WTF is wrong with people?
When you submit your proposal to NSF or NIH or wherehaveyou, the reviewers are required to sign that they will not steal your freaking idea. At the very least the person who’s your mentor (or former mentor) should be trusted not to steal your freaking ideas when you go for independent proposals alone! That seems like a really low bar. FFS.
wally, I’m really sorry. The mentor is clearly not on your side, at least not fully. Act accordingly. This person will likely write you good letters and maybe still propel you as you move on, but they can clearly not be trusted with anything sensitive because, they are a self-serving opportunist. Not evil incarnate, but not trustworthy.
You will have to find a different niche (it that’s even possible right now without them reading drafts). It is what it is, it’s not your fault that you trusted them, it’s their fault that they overstepped what seem like natural boundaries. Again, I know at least one person in the blogosphere who will say it’s not a big deal and that they and their postdoc advisor went after the same projects at the same time, starting with the onset of their own work as independent PI, but I still think it’s icky to do anything that so explicitly undermines a group’s soon-to-be-former youngling like presenting Aim 2 of youngling’s individual proposal (the proposal meant to be a path toward independence!) as your group’s work.
You need to protect yourself both emotionally (this person is not your selfless champion) and then intellectually (change fields or at least niches) moving forward. I’m sorry…
Blogosphere, what do you say?