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? 




  1. To the postdoc – I’m sorry but this is always a problem-the letter writer needs to understand this.

    The postdoc is not an independent researcher because they are literally working in the lab of someone else and doing work that someone else is paying for. The PI hired them in order to have them do work for them and is paying for their work. The postdoc cannot work on something in that lab unless the PI says it is OK. It’s not surprising or unethical that the PI now thinks the work done by the postdoc is something they can use.

    Having an F32 and writing a K award do not make you an independent researcher-these are trainee awards which means they are giving you funds for training, ie to do work for someone else. I chair NIH study sections for these types of grants. You only get these type of awards if your PI (not you, the postdoc) already has substantial funding for the exact same project and has published in the area of the project, since the F32 only provides (a fraction) of salary for the postdoc and gives no funding at all for the necessary lab supplies or mice etc. The lab supplies and everything needed else for your project (usually at least $50K/year) are not paid for by your K or F32 award – those come from your PI’s funds. So yes the PI will “use” your data generated during your F32 for their own grants-because they paid for it. This should not surprise you!

    If you want to be an independent researcher you will need to get an independent faculty position and then win your own R01 or R21. You will have to be statregic about what you write these grants about- you may need to walk away from a hot area if your former PI (or any other major investigator) is pursuing it because you won’t be able to compete directly with an established investigator. You may not be able to write your first R grant on your “dream” project – you may have to wait until you are more established to try anything so risky. On the plus side, as a new investigator, you will have an advantage in getting these R grants.

    So…good luck! You are not being persecuted by your PI – this is what everyone has to go through to become independent. You PI is not being a jerk – this is how anyone must run their lab. Your PI can’t afford to give away one of their main projects in which they have invested a ton of $$$$—as a trainee, you need to also realize this reality.

    If you want to become independent, you need to stop expecting other scientists to endanger their own lab by “gifting” you with a hot project from their own portfolio. Develop your own stuff!

  2. I feel for Wally and I am perennially irritated by the whole “you must first establish independence” angle which seems to be a thing at the big research institutions (note that I am not at one of those so I am more free to collaborate with whom I chose).

    I wonder what those conversations with PI went like. Presumably Wally and PI sad down and said “hey, here’s what I’m thinking of submitting my K99 on – what do you think? Would you be willing to let me have this area for a few years while I get established?” If this happened and PI said “yes” then PI is obviously a jerk. If PI said, “well, we’ll see – how about we both submit and see who gets funded, then draw lines elsewhere” then PI is less of a jerk (though maybe a little bit selfish). K99 and regular grants aren’t exactly in competition so I think it’s fine for both to be submitted at the same time (they shouldn’t be exactly the same of course).

    Also did you ask to be on those proposals that PI is writing as co-PI? It is possible at least in some fields to do this and bring some of the $$ with you to your new job. You need to also write grants on more independent stuff in addition but it’s nice to have that bit of $$ to take with you.

    “You only get these type of awards if your PI (not you, the postdoc) already has substantial funding for the exact same project. … So yes the PI will use your data generated during your F32 for their own grants-because they paid for it. This should not surprise you!”

    This is not accurate for all F32s. I know many cases of NRSAs being funded with little funding from PI including my own. What was important was that the proposed project was possible to do in the lab given the funds and resources available from PI (and that ideas were worthwhile etc, etc). I work in a cheap area though so I suppose if you have to kill 1000 mice for a project or use human subjects *shudder* this might be more accurate.

    Furthermore, K99 grant is not only a trainee grant like F32 – it is supposed to be your “path to independence” and it’s therefore the #1 signal to job prospects that this is YOUR area going forward. If your K99 gets funded, adviser should get their grubby hands off of it for at least a few grant cycles, because it’s going to convert to an R00 at your new TT job and will be the basis for your first R01 or NSF grant and as noted above there is this expectation about how you must establish complete independence / cut all ties with former PI. This mean former PI if they are not a jerk has to give you something of your own to work on, even if they paid for some of that precious preliminary data. If PI and mentee work together then lines can be drawn where both can benefit from that same data without conflict.

    If your K does not get funded, then a conversation must be had as to who is going to submit the next grant on those ideas. I don’t consider my failed K99 to mean that only I can submit on those ideas. In fact I know other groups that are pursuing them and that’s fine. Regular conversations setting boundaries are important.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with xyk, and find it very refreshing to hear a comfortably tenured prof espousing such views. I was really surprised when I first heard a professor express an opinion that they thought it was actually OK to steal (or “follow up on”) ideas that you read about in grant proposals, because ideas don’t belong to anyone and there’s plenty of work to do, blah blah blah. I mean, yeah, but… this is a much easier thing to adapt to when you are already a tenured professor (especially when you’re tenured at Harvard, like this one was). Most professional societies (including my own) have ethical guidelines about beneficence towards junior members of the profession — which, in my opinion, includes not stealing their ideas. Maybe this is field-specific to some extent, but Artnsci’s response above is really surprising to me. I think of postdocs as largely independent researchers that I (as PI) am helping to launch. The flow of ideas should be from me to the postdoc, to help bolster their own independent ideas that they are still learning to develop. The flow of ideas should NOT be from the postdoc to me! If my postdoc comes up with an idea, I encourage him to develop and pursue it, and offer whatever support I can. The only payback I deserve is maybe coauthorship on a paper, and that’s only IF I really contributed to the development of the idea. I’ve had a postdoc working with me for four years, and he has written a bunch of papers with data that I generated the ideas/proposals for that I am coauthor on, and he’s also written a couple of publications that I’m not a coauthor on that extend his PhD research. To me, this is a healthy collaboration, and I plan to avoid working in the area that I handed off to him when he leaves me, since he has now done the hard work of establishing himself as an/THE expert on the topic. That’s what a good PI does, in my book. And I’ve got plenty of my own ideas to work on, so it’s no skin off my nose anyway. Sounds like wally is in a situation with an insecure PI who doesn’t have enough of their own ideas to work on and needs to poach their trainees’ ideas rather than help their trainees take leadership on those ideas. Crappy mentorship, at its best. Personally, I think it’s unethical. Unfortunately, xyk is right that not everyone would agree, and the only recourse wally has is to try to find new ideas and not share them with the PI, since the PI has now proven him/herself to be untrustworthy. Sorry, wally — that sucks.

  4. The PI may or may not be a “thieving asshole,” but they dropped the ball as a mentor by not having The Talk about boundaries sooner. But the gray area of whose idea is whose is f$cking huge and cuts both ways. In my experience, the trainee is more like to overestimate his/her contribution. I am going through this right now with a graduating student who told me he plans to take with him two projects that I developed before he even started grad school (and I have the prelim data and unfunded proposals to prove it). He honestly thinks he came up with these ideas on his own, much to my surprise.

    So I take these grievances from trainees with a huge grain of salt. But it truly sucks in Wally’s case because it seems like there was a lack of communication going on for a long time. It never should have reached this point.

  5. This person just started a 3 year postdoc grant and is planning to write a K99 (which means an additional two years of training in the PI’s lab). It is not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination that the PI should pay for the reagents, equipment, and infrastructure for the postdoc’s pet project out of their existing funds. It is absolutely appropriate and even generous that the PI is writing grants to fund this postdoc’s project rather than making them work on currently funded projects in the lab. Further, this PI is using their reputation to make contacts that will advance the new project. There’s plenty of scientific questions to go around, and calling dibs years in advance of your (potential) independence is not reasonable.

  6. When I read about various aspects of the lab culture in the biomedical fields, for instance how long these postdoctoral gigs are, with multiple successive “tether grants” of different duration keeping a postdoc sort-of-but-not-really independent, I am completely terrified that Eldest wants to major in molecular biology (interested in genetics) when he goes to college in the fall. The culture and the timescales involved in order to even try for a faculty position seem inhumane. I understand it’s common, but it doesn’t make it any less scary.

    Several people brought up the PI paying for reagents, equipment, etc. as a reason for intellectual ownership of everything anyone in the lab produces. I understand the rationale, but it still seems off. You would expect that in a company, where you’re not allowed to discuss or take with you anything you worked on while you were there. It seems a bit odd in an academic setting.

    I wonder if this culture stems from the ultrahigh cost of doing research in the biomedical fields. Also, I wonder to what degree other fields with high costs of experiment have the same issues. Maybe biomed is really different from other fields.

  7. Speaking as an experimental physicist, I think I lean more towards “almost tenured”‘s point of view. When I hire postdocs I hope that they will come up with great ideas that we work on together. And more often than not, I will feel some ownership in the ideas because I spend a huge amount of time sifting through various trainee ideas that are not so great (including countless arguments on recurring themes) and because usually the good ideas are creative extensions of projects already going on in my lab.

    If a postdoc started holding back ideas because they wanted to keep them for themselves for a theoretical position that they might start 3+ years from now, I would consider them to be acting in bad faith.

    My suggestion to Wally: if this is a great research direction (and it sounds like it is), work your butt off in this area. Apply for all the k99 and other awards you can and don’t stress what grants your advisor is applying for. Make sure you become the world expert in this area. If that is the case, then when you do accept a faculty position you will be in a powerful position to either negotiate a peaceful separation of research with your postdoc advisor or just go ahead and successfully compete with them. That’s basically what I did in a similar situation with my PhD advisor and everything worked out well for both of us.

  8. I am a theoretical biophysicist, working a lot with experimentalists. I also had a stunt in materials science. Therefore, I can tell you that the attitude that everything that is produced while PI is paying you belongs to him/her is not at all uncommon. In fact, I think it is the least common in very theoretical fields, like mathematics or also string theory where postdocs are simply collaborators free to work and publish with whoever they want to.

    Once I even got asked a question from a fellow “senior postdoc” of another group whether my boss gave me a permission to publish by myself. As that must be some high honour.

    It also happens a lot in theoretical physics. I know a story when a postdoc sent his own work to a journal in which the editor was his current boss. He got immediate rejection and when he asked what was that about to his boss, he told him that he is not paying him for publishing anything else but work done for him (PI).

  9. “I am completely terrified that Eldest wants to major in molecular biology (interested in genetics) when he goes to college in the fall. The culture and the timescales involved in order to even try for a faculty position seem inhumane.”

    I don’t know how common it is, but the people I know who got academic and government jobs didn’t postdoc for more than 4 years, and 2 is fairly common.

    I wonder if some of the crazy-long postdocs are specifically people who work with mouse models. Then you have to rely on the mouse life cycle and everything gets stretched out… plus more financial / moral obligations than if you work on something without a spine / warm blood.

  10. From a different field and culture, but I do feel for the professor… Postdocs do not realize how much time a Prof. put into securing their position, infrastructure,… I sat weekends and wrote proposals so as I could hire postdocs. I do expect them then to work with me on their original ideas, and I suggest my original ideas to them to work on. The PI may be overly-enthusiastic, but the best you can do now is to focus on the present, and be *the* expert on the topic. Do not over-think what would happen in 3 years.

    I have had a situations with a postdoc working without telling me, on ‘his’ project, assuming that since it was his ideas it was fine to work on it, and publish separately. I was furious. I need these projects and papers so as to receive grants, and support my group. Since then, I am always making it clear to incoming postdocs what my expectations are. I am very generous with my ideas. I expect the same from trainees.

  11. When I left National Lab, I had to leave everything I worked on behind (even the projects I got funding for as a PI). This was not a surprise to me, and I had planned for it. A National Lab is not the same an academic lab.

    When we bring in people from academia, most of them start off with some work that is a continuation/extension of things they were doing as postdocs. This is normal and expected in my field. If the proposed work looks too close to the previous lab’s research focus, we ask interviewees why funding agencies should fund them and not their previous lab, which is already set up and running. The successful candidates have some good answer, either a new angle/technique not normally used by their previous group, or they can honestly tell us that this is a direction their previous lab does not plan to pursue (and this definitely happens).

    From what I can see, the danger to Wally is two-fold, given that he will be in the lab another 2 years (phew, biomed postdocs are long!): 1) after 3 years, people will associate Wally’s research with his advisor (and I think this is hard to avoid if the advisor is last author on the publications). This may impact how his proposals are received by search committees unless the advisor addresses this in their letter. And 2) Wally plans to spend 2 more years in a lab where his advisor is willing to run with ideas that Wally has indicated he plans to use to build his application for a TT position.

    I agree with Grumpy that holding back on research ongoing in the lab is a no-go, especially for two more years. This is even true for new directions stemming from current research. You can’t work for two people at once, even if one of them is you! It may well be that Wally ends up formulating some things that he has no intention of pursuing until he is closer to the end of his postdoc, but these would have to be entirely new and not just a new take or new extension of work Wally is currently paid to be doing. I did that in prep for my transition to academia, while still going full bore on my existing projects and continuing to add new ideas and suggestions to existing research directions at National Lab.

    Wally, I am sorry, but at least you know now that your advisor is willing to prioritize their career at the expense of yours. I agree with Xyk that your advisor is behaving poorly, and that you’ve been stepped on. I also agree with her advice. 2 years is a long time, and ideas will come. You need to find a niche where your advisor can’t or won’t follow. I don’t think this is acceptable behavior, and it certainly isn’t business as usual in my field (at least not yet), but we don’t have these weird transitional vehicles like NIH does, where you are independent and not at the same time.

  12. Completely agree with xyk and lyra on this one. It baffles me that anyone would think that owning the equipment/etc. on which work is done would grant ownership of intellectual property. If a PI wants people to plow forward on the PI’s ideas, which the PI will then no-contest “own”, they should pull in research technicians. Post-docs aren’t/shouldn’t be idea mills for established PIs. Obviously there are post-docs that will not generate new ideas. But, the *hope* for me at least is that they’ll come up with their own ideas, which they then launch.

    The payout for the PI is that it has tremendous positive impact on one’s reputation (particularly for academics) to have a legacy of independent researchers (former post-doc’s and PhD students) that you fostered. To be honest, it sucks worse for Wally (sorry, Wally), but Wally’s adviser may also ultimately take a hit for this behavior IMO. All of the powerhouses in my field are viewed as such not only because of the work they have direct “ownership” of, but because of the (related) work their proteges have carried on. Plus, if I caught wind of this, I certainly wouldn’t recommend to my recent-grads that they work with this person. In my case at least it ain’t a big enough field to get on OK with having a bad reputation as a post-doc adviser.

  13. The crazy long postdocs occur in all fields in life sciences (except, maybe, bioinformatics, where students can bail for CS positions in industry at higher pay). The ones who actually get jobs are often superstars who did super jobs in a short postdoc—after 6 or 8 years of postdocs it gets increasingly unlikely that people will ever get a permanent position.

  14. So…circling back to give more accurate positive advice for the biomedical postdocs who wants to head an independent lab someday:
    1) Work like the dickens and publish publish publish. You MUST be first-author on a significant number of papers – middle author simply doesn’t count for your purposes. Some minor or middle author papers won’t hurt but they won’t help you much either. You must publish at least one paper in a HIGH profile journal (at least in the FASEB society published journal in your field, or preferably even higher such as Rockefeller press, cell press, nature press etc) and you must be first author on these highprofile papers. Preferably get first author on preferably two or three high profile journal papers from your postdoc lab.
    2) to do this – you will need major help including from others in the lab and also major funding from your PI. Because these high profile papers include so many results/experiments that you can’t do it alone and they also are super expensive to do. Thus you MUST do your major work in the area where your PI has R01 funding, and also you must lead/mentor students and more junior people to help with your project. It doesn’t detract from your accomplishments if you include these other people as authors on your papers—as long as you are first author.
    3) to do this – you must write and plan out these high profile papers YOURSELF. The rule in most labs is “she who writes the actual paper is the first author”. Do not whine and expect your PI to write the paper for you-if you want to be faculty someday you need to take charge. Scientific writing is one of the critical things that separates “productive postdoc” from “future faculty member”. I recommend that even at early stages of the project you start drafting and dreaming and sketching out the logic/flow of the paper, and make start making publication ready figures form your results-in-progress. Also discuss your early plans for the paper with your PI often, and take her advice to improve the future paper. This will help you “see” where controls etc are needed so you can plan to do them as soon as possible. The difference between a paper that gets into a high impact vs low impact journal is often how many controls and alternative approaches are included in the report-you need to plan ahead.
    4) publishing awesome papers is not enough! Because everyone will be biased towards wondering your PI might have designed the experiments and even written you first author papers for you. You must also **start visibly doing things that a PI would do** (even though you are still a postdoc)—-but ONLY the things that you actually CAN do at your stage.
    – do NOT drive away your PI and his/her grant money and students that are supporting your career trajectory. This is stupid and you can’t get enough resources on your own right now so definitely don’t do this. Be nice to your PI, publically thank them for their patronage and mentorship, and most importantly EXCEL in other areas that will make you a good faculty candidate so they can be proud of you and can recommend you without hesitation. they will be patting themselves on the back soon, saying what a great mentor they are etc.
    – you need to EXCEL at these things while a postdoc:
    A) mentor others in the lab. Help students with their thesis projects. Some of their results can be put into your own high profile first author papers, but you can help them also with their own first author papers and you get middle authorship. You need to show that you can direct projects and people.
    B) volunteer to lead teaching activities. It sort of sucks since you won’t get full credit, but do it anyway-you need to show you can do what faculty do. Collect many things like this for your CV. Organize a workshop or course on a technical or academic topic for the graduate students -you will need a faculty member to be the official head however but you can still do it. Volunteer to work on mentoring disadvantaged/diversity trainees, and look for a training organization at your institution that does this and volunteer to put together a presentation for them, workshop on CV creation, whatever you can come up with (this always is a plus in hiring faculty). See if one of the faculty in your department will let you give a lecture for them in one of their graduate courses. Consider participating in helping run/organize undergrad outreach that your institution does-symposiums, organizing events for undergraduate summer researchers. Join your FASEB society and see if you can help lead some of their mentoring/teaching/development etc. The key here is not just to consume/attend workshops – at this point you should be helping organize, teach, and lead workshops for more junior people.
    Not helpful however: leading your local postdoc organization (you want to emphasize things that show you are approximately equal to a faculty member. Do not emphasize things that focus on your status as a postdoc—you are trying to leave that status behind). Also not helpful: helping with K-12 science (only helpful if you are going in a different career direction; especially dangerous for women postdocs who get stereotyped as mostly good as schoolteachers). Also not helpful: attending week long courses and so on around the country/world-this is for students not faculty.
    C) explore getting academic rank at your institution. Instructor or Assistant Professor can be very helpful.
    D) look for non-NIH grants you can write and submit as PI, perhaps society grants, teaching grants, state grants etc.These will not give much $ but will show your writing skills and leadership if you get them. They look really good on your CV. The main question people have about potential faculty members they are considering hiring is “will they be able to ever get a grant?”
    E) present your work at meetings. OFTEN! Write for travel awards etc. And when you go to a meeting make a note of the “big scientists” there and make a point to try to meet and talk with them. Discuss science, obviously. Try to attend meetings where your PI doesn’t, so you can present yourself as the leader.
    F) Act like you are already faculty. it seems weird, but I have found it really helps with people’s perceptions of you as mature and ready to be a considered for a faculty position. Dress like the other faculty dress at your institution. Be serious and professional at all times. Be seen at work during regular hours (8am-5pm). Be courteous and profesional expecially with secretaries and other admins. Do not hang out or drink with the students. Do not cuss in the lab. Respond to email promptly (within 24 hr) and in professional language. Do not cover your desk/labspace with off color or juvenile cartoons, and don’t ever put cartoons in your presentations. Ask for professional feedback seriously from faculty and other mentors, and take note and try to correct what they point out.
    G) Actively and continually recruit other faculty at your institution to create a large network of career cheerleaders and mentors and potential collaborators. You can call on them for rec letters, and they can help you design and can review your job application packets, and they will let you know about opportunities including faculty jobs that they hear about. A lot of faculty jobs are given out based on “word of mouth” recommendations from faculty at other institutions who know the applicant. To recruit your network, ask respectvully to meet with each of them one at a time, and then discuss your work and get their feedback; you can also ask for feedback on your career development and strategies. IMPORTANT—Do NOT whine and complain about your PI in these meetings!!!! Be as professional as possible and act like you are already a faculty member in these meetings. Many of these people will be very happy to help you A LOT, but they will not do it if you present yourself as a whiney person disconnected from the reality of biomedical funding and careers. Meeting with these people can help you understand more in detail what is appropriate for this career in terms of your expectations vs. inappropriate.

    Finally, good luck! Your goal of a faculty position is within your reach, provided you have been productive in your research as a postdoc and also do the things above.

    I have been on many faculty search committees and my department is currently trying to fill 4 faculty positions so I have seen it all. Believe it or not, there are actually only very few qualified applicants for most faculty positions at primary research institutions. We are having trouble filling these faculty positions. Most (90%?) people applying for faculty jobs straight from a postdoc have these problems: no high impact papers; few first author papers at all during career. No evidence they have experience writing grants or papers independently. No evidence they have experience designing a feasible research project independently. No idea how biomedical funding or academic careers work. The research plan they submited for their faculty position is identical to their current mentors’ research program, shows no innovation, has little detail, isn’t well thought out or feasible, doesn’t appear fundable as an r01 or anything else within a few years, and is poorly written. Often they can’t give a decent presentation or job talk (going over on the time, not well practiced, no background for general audience), and they have no evidence of mentoring others in the lab or teaching experience. We aren’t going to hire these people as faculty because we don’t want to babysit them and teach them the basics-they should have learned these things during their postdoc.

  15. “Act like you are already faculty. it seems weird, but I have found it really helps with people’s perceptions of you as mature… Do not cover your desk/labspace with off color or juvenile cartoons, and don’t ever put cartoons in your presentations. ”

    TBH the only people I’ve ever seen do this ARE faculty…

  16. Some of the seriousness requirements seems to be different for women and men… Basically, women can get away with less whimsy than men. But it’s definitely true that search committees look for people who clearly know what the job entails and are ready to hit the ground running.

  17. Thank you for all the comments and feedback! I’m not in the hard sciences, and some things are slightly different than they are for other postdocs – like I am 100% funded by my own NIH grant plus some funding from the University. None of my mentor’s grant funds go to me. I definitely wish we had had a discussion about boundaries beforehand, as that could have helped tremendously. Lessons learned here, I guess.

    Thank you again!

  18. This post came at a time that I have been going through similar struggles as Wally. I am an early career staff scientist at a National Lab in the hard physical sciences. I have led to develop a new research line for the last few years. When this research line started getting internal political backing within the last year, my former post doc adviser started jockeying for the appearance of the leader. I have been talking to my managers about my concerns regarding my career trajectory and growth, and no changes are coming. Basically, they acknowledge that their decision is political to annoint my former adviser as the leader of this research line and they have expectations for me to still work and develop ideas for this research line. I am assessing my options which are: 1) stay, 2) make a lateral move within NL, or 3) leave NL. Options 2 and 3 don’t scare me as much as option 1 which could mean a clipped career trajectory and low morale.

    Thank you, Xyk for sharing your thoughts about Wally’s situation. It was good to hear the perspective from a senior, established scientist on overreaching.

  19. Theft, pure and simple. As a senior PI I have no sympathy for the PI and there are plenty of words in the dictionary to describe such behaviour. There are, sadly, many of them around. Characteristics are pretty simple: not so smart, short of ideas and imagination, so parasitise their postdocs and PhD students.
    A good PI has so much they want to do and don’t due to the need for focus, that it is a relief when someone in the lab takes some of it away. The blank spaces in science (including biomedical sciences) are vast, where we have some knowledge is a small corner. Test most of our models and they are found to be wanting.
    In biomedical/biochemical sciences, one only has to take a wander through Uniprot – we know next to nothing and even the old warhorses such as myoglobin show us new tricks every few years.
    You need papers, where the significance of your contribution is obvious, but do not worry about impact factor of journal – you don’t want to work in a place that considers this to be a useful measure of quality (it isn’t!). To ensure priority, preprint, as publication can take a while.

    Disclaimer: I benefitted from the generosity of mentors and have not forgotten, and hope that I meet their standards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s