Overreach

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? 

 

 

PSA: Needless Logins Cause Strokes

These days, there are few things online that I hate with more passion or that send my blood pressure through the roof more rapidly than the sites that require me to create an account with a complicated “secure” password, when my purpose of being there should not require an account or a password at all.

Example: Now is the time when undergrads apply to grad school and I submit letters of recommendation. I fuckin’ hate it when I have to open an account and log in just to upload a goddamn letter of recommendation. I want to click on the link you sent me, browse to select a file, upload the file, click submit, and never ever  think about your site again. Capisce?

And, it’s not enough that I write a letter, I have to fill out (otherwise I cannot submit) ridiculous questionnaires about whether a nebulous trait of the student, like maturity, is exceptional (top 1%), outstanding (top 5%), excellent (top 10%), or similar ridiculously finely graded bullshit.

All that I know is in the fuckin’ letter. Leave me alone. Most of these kids didn’t really do research as undergrads; even if they did, they still don’t have  three people who know them really really well.

All. I Know. Is In. The Fuckin’. Letter.

On Travel

Urggle asks:

How about a post about the merits of travel – we scientists fly endlessly around the world, at great cost to the environment and our families. Personally, I would like to just stop travelling for work. It’s hard on my kids and on my time and well-being. But the invitations are insistent and never-ending. It’s embedded into our culture. How do you (kindly, but firmly) decline someone? How do you manage travel expectations as you climb up the ladder?

To start, I will emphasize that I am not a superstar. I am respected in my field, but I do theory and computation within the broader area, in which the heavy hitters are experimentalists. So please calibrate accordingly. My attitude toward travel might be correlated with my relative non-superstardom.

I have been a faculty member for over a decade. Tenure, full prof, named prof. I traveled like crazy on the tenure track and even a few years afterwards.

*grump alert*

I am soooooo done with travel. I don’t see the point of excessive travel. Some is fine and useful, most of it is not. Some people love travel and get energized by it; if you are like that, more power to you — have fun! But, I am sick and tired of travel for work and it is impossible to entice me to do more of it with anything touristy. I don’t care at how nice a place your meeting is. I care how exhausting and expensive it will be to get there and stay there.

Here are the rules I currently implement when it comes to travel. When I don’t want to do it, I simply say I am too busy and cannot, end of story. It’s not untrue. I might deviate from the rules to do a favor for a colleague I like, but even so I have to say no, because there are more colleagues I might have to make exceptions for than there are exceptions total I am willing to make…

I have become extremely selective regarding where I travel overseas and how frequently. Right now, I will do at most one overseas trip per year, to Europe; absolutely no more than that. I avoid going to Asia because the cost and the hassle are simply too great. I passed up a couple of opportunities to go to Australia in recent years and will take a next meaningful one to do so, but other than that it’s Europe once a year or all domestic.

There are four conferences in my field that I try to attend whenever I can, and there’s a clear hierarchy among them. There’s one I never miss (alternates between US and Europe), two that I seldom miss (one always in Europe, one goes between the US, Europe, and Asia), and one that I go to only if it’s in the US. In addition, there is a Gordon conference (always in the US) that I try to attend  whenever offered and I look forward to it this year, and three large meetings (different places across the US) where I mostly send students and only attend in person if there are particularly nice special sessions or it’s very convenient to drive.

I don’t mind most travel within the US. In fact, I quite like the three-day trip (2 nights) of the kind you might undertake to go to an NSF panel. I go to Washington,  DC, at least 2-3 times per year;  in a busy year, probably more than half a dozen times. Attending PI meetings and review panels is extremely useful in terms of both the exposure to new science and networking, so these are a priority for me.

I give talks at other institutions only if it’s convenient, along with something else or to do a favor to someone I know and like, otherwise I don’t do it.

Of course, this is something I can elect to do at my career stage. Junior people typically need more exposure. (Shameless plug: There is much more on travel, especially on the tenure track, in Academaze.)

I would like to add that you should never neglect your personal well-being (burnout is a well-known phenomenon) or the work with your group. I know people who travel so much that their group is basically self-governing. I don’t think those students get much training or advising, and the research dollars are not being spent optimally.

Never lose sight of why we do what we do and what the priorities are: to push the boundaries of human knowledge through research and to educate the next generation. Everything else is either in the service of these two or is not really essential. If a nonessential part actually prevents you from doing a job on the essential part or kills your will to live, maybe it’s time to rethink how you spend your energy. Remember, no medals are given for getting sick or forgetting the faces of your spouse and kids because of work.

Blogosphere readers, what do you say? Do you have advice for Urggle? 

On Ideas

MC3 asked:

“Far too many candidates are indistinguishable in that they don’t have original ideas at all; instead, they regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences or in group meetings to be the next obvious steps.” I agree with this. But to be honest, I think the reason many people just regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences and group meetings is because it’s really REALLY hard to come up with new, creative, and feasible ideas. So what about those of us–like me–who often find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come up with original ideas? Does that mean we’re just not meant to be in science?”

I can’t say whether someone has a future in science or not without knowing them well.

But I know that sometimes people have ideas, they just don’t know that those are viable ideas or they overestimate how much novelty is needed for something to be considered a viable idea.

Often the best ideas come from picking on a scab that was formed over a question that hadn’t been successfully settled in a research area. If you are honest about what you do or don’t understand, you will find that there are things that everyone glosses over but they are far from understood. If you pull on that thread of the unknown, you can uncover a whole set of interesting questions.

Are you curious in general? Are you a person who enjoys talking about science with colleagues, listening to talks, meeting visitors? In general, ideas can form almost subconsciously if you provide your brain with enough varied input to chew on.

Follow your interests. If you are really, truly into something and are in the position to pursue it, then do so. Follow your gut.

Follow your gut, but also learn from those with more experience. Learn how to estimate how long things will take, whether they are a good use of your time, how much manpower is needed, how to predict potential pitfalls and what to do when they happen.

A few years ago, one of my then senior graduate students read a proposal and said something like, “Oh, this looks totally doable. I thought you would have to propose something much more out there.” We started talking about what a proposal is, that it’s not a pie in the sky, but work that builds on what is known in a logical, well-justified way. That it’s not just the crazy idea, but that you need to convince people that spending money on you is a good idea.

So if you wonder whether you have sufficient ability to generate ideas, ask yourself:

When you work as a grad student or postdoc, are you systematic about your work? Do you try to clarify every detail in your understanding? When your advisor asks you if you checked something, do you often find that you already thought of the issue on your own and checked it? These are good signs.

Do you enjoy listening to your lab mates present their work? How much do you know about your lab mates’ work? Would you be able to give their talk at a conference? (That’s an excellent exercise that I’ve been meaning to implement as training in my group — have students present each other’s work.) Building a broad base to your expertise is good.

When you go to a conference and listen to talks, do you feel like you have questions? Do you notice things that are unclear, or missing, or suspicious, or perhaps unusually insightful? Do conferences make your mind catch fire in the best sense? I often find that I have a lot of ideas after a good meeting.

Can you identify a good project the size of a single manuscript in a society journal? How about in a prestigious journal? Now can you identify a project the size of a typical grant in your field? A project is like a novel, where each paper is like a chapter. The project has to have an overarching idea, a set of coherently sewn together smaller questions, each answered within a small number of papers.

The unit of scientific communication is a research paper. Understanding what makes a paper, how much is enough for a paper, how to weave a paper-worthy scientific story — these are all key ingredients in starting to believe in your ability to generate ideas.

And, of course, some people are happiest when doing technical work within the context of a large project outlined by someone else. Such people are usually very detail oriented.  Others wouldn’t want to have anyone else tell them what is to be done, may prefer big-idea thinking (and selling those ideas) to in-the-trenches technical work; these folks, if they are creative and good at marketing, they can go far; otherwise, it can be tough.

Blogosphere, what do you say? 

McLinky’s

Had work to do, so links. We will finish November strong with responses to query posts, but for now — web humour from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency:

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-the-person-on-the-internet-who-likes-fighting-with-me

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-of-thanks-to-my-absentee-students

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-white-people-in-need-of-a-token-brown-person

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/dantes-nine-circles-of-hell-reimagined-for-linguistic-transgressions

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/signs-that-you-are-a-gen-xer-going-through-menopause

 

 

Chalk Talk

Disgruntled postdoc asked:

Faux pas you see during faculty interviews, especially the chalk talk. I know you’ve written about the interviews (on site and Skype) overall in general but specific things during the chalk talk would be nice since from the outside postdocs have never seen any other than their own

 

I am not in the biomedical sciences, so I can’t say what’s needed there. My department usually does one long talk that’s part seminar, part closed session where we grill the candidate on their plans; the latter could be referred to as the chalk talk. What follows is, as is my wont, a stream of consciousness:

The seminar

The seminar showcases your knowledge of the state of the art and your prior work. But this is a job seminar talk. Its purpose is for you to look like an expert who’s done good, important work in an exciting area. I am always surprised by how many candidates don’t tell us what it is that they did versus the general state of the field. Others act as if their whole grad school or postdoc group is the same as themselves. Nope. Unlike a seminar at a conference, where you are a representative of your whole research group, this is a job talk. It’s nice if you are gracious and give credit where credit is due, but we are all here (including you) because you are interviewing for the job. We need to see what you know, how you think, what you did.

And get some clothes that fit and that you are comfortable in. Uncomfortably squirming, sweaty candidates in clothes made from non-breathable fabric and bought many pounds ago do not leave the greatest impression. You don’t have to be stylish or spend a lot of money, but be comfortable and professional. “Professional” does depend on the field; there are fields where wearing a suit is a must; in others, people are are much more casual.

The chalk-talk part

You need to have thought about what you will need and how much it will approximately cost. Ideally, look into the shared facilities at the university before arriving to the extent possible and show us that you know what you’ll be able to leverage. This is very impressive when done right and shows you are serious and interested. If there’s stuff you absolutely have to have as your own (e.g., because you will build upon that equipment with some custom additions), we need to know about it.

We want to see no fewer than three and no more than five sturdy lines of research that you will undertake. Think about long-term and short-term plans. What will you work on first, the first couple of years?  What will your first several proposals be on? How about five years in? Where will you apply for money? Are you naive about what the funding trends are? How large do you envision your group will be initially? Eventually?

What will your first few proposals be on? You don’t have to talk about these as proposals, but rather as exciting research ideas; either way, we want to see that you can think in terms of fundable, executable ‘quanta’ of research. Pitch your ideas to us. If you excite us with your ideas, with what you feel you will pull off, that’s a great sign.

Again, your ideas. Not trivial extensions of the work your group is currently doing, in which case they’ll be funded for it and not you. Your unique ideas. You need to grow your niche. Convince us that you know you need a niche, that you will develop one, that your envisioned niche is something you are uniquely positioned to do, and that it’s important and exciting.

Far too many candidates are indistinguishable in that they don’t have original ideas at all; instead, they regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences or in group meetings to be the next obvious steps. That’s boring. We want to see interesting, well-thought-out, fresh ideas.

Blogosphere, please chime in with chalk-talk dos and don’ts!