On not knowing precisely how to do the work that is being done in one's lab

Oct 26 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

Post-docs and grad students (which I was JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO folks, before you get up in arms about how "the (wo)MAN is just trying to keep us down and just doesn't UNDERSTAND US") tend to have this feeling that their work somehow should not belong to their PI, or anyone else but them as the person who PERFORMS the experiments. This was just brought up in all the discussions surrounding Chalfie's being left out of the Nobel group for GFP, and gets vented about a LOT in the science blogosphere, since this is a place that grad students and postdocs can come and let out their frustrations without the danger of repurcussions or those uncomfortable interpersonal experiences that would ensue from trying to bring these up in person with your PI.

But thinking that the beauty of science and discovery is all about some individual striving to do something only they can do, with some cartoon, superhero version of intellectual 'purity,' is just deluded, self-important and pretend. If wishes were horses and great scientific breakthroughs could be achieved through THOUGHT experiments, then maybe that could happen in a vacuum universe. But the reality is none of us ever do anything on our own. Not even our own thinking. Even our private thinking and problem-solving skills are shaped, molded, influenced and ultimately built upon frameworks created through our interactions with other people: ESPECIALLY those mentors and advisors and teachers who have been particularly important to our lives. So, no: nothing you ever do is TRULY your own work and your own creation. That's just the fundamental bottom line of being a social organism.

Aside from that esoterii (did I make that word up?), there's the issue of infrastructure and teamwork. Yeah, see, the thing you come to understand once it is YOU in charge of stewarding the multi-millions of dollars that are required to keep a lab in operation is that GUESS WHAT: everybody has a distinct role, and nobody's jobs should overlap too much otherwise it gets redundant and wasteful of resources. Sure, I could stand at a bench next to my post-doc and we could each run parts of the overall experiment, or we could act as eachother's reproducibility checks and each do a set of replicates. And then I would know intimately what it took to produce the data that we used to support our work.

I could also go back to take classes and/or work on and learn myself all the various techniques and special skillsets that come in, either from those people or from someone else, and become an expert in every single action and strategy ever performed or taken in my lab. I could metaphysically absorb more and more and more and more information and skills and expertise until I expanded into a giant. But then what would they do in my lab? If I already knew how to do everything, why would I hire anyone else? Why not just do it all myself?

Because being the PI of a lab isn't about knowing how to do everything in the world. It's not about becoming the intimate expert on threads of detail. It's about leading a team, finding people to fill knowledge and skill gaps and managing them in a way that best combines their skills with the resources around them to produce emergent creative phenomena. It's about not redundantifying who does and knows what, so that each person's time and skills can be best used to move the whole group forward towards: 1. finding things out, and 2. making sure you can afford to keep finding things out. While I must say that I am quite vain about my abilities to understand just about anything (and I have lots of practice--if you saw my publication record you might scratch your head with how random and varied it looks)--I recognize that it is NOT NECESSARY for me to be able to run the experiments for a given thing in order to use that expertise in my research. Not necessary, and not efficient: it would be a waste of taxpayer money and lab resources for me to duplicate the skills of people on my team.

I could not have articulated this three months ago. I never had a problem acknowledging the contributions of my PIs and mentors and always automatically considered them a part of my work, anyway. But before I started managing this amount of resources, and became responsible for putting together and shepherding a team of people using those resources, it just wasn't as clear. And, don't think I don't understand the situation of having a bad mentor, a selfish or inept PI. I know that just as well as the next girl from experience, too. But I can see the difference between the POINT of PI-ship and the bad apples. And if you are unable to see the forest because of all the frustration you have with the trees in your way, try taking a step back to remember that you could not have gotten into the woods without support from SOMEWHERE (there's no such thing as a free lunch or a free thought) and you won't be able to get OUT of the woods without depersonalizing things and seeing where you and others fit along the path. And you won't be very good at making paths until you can see how they have been made for you.

7 responses so far

  • EthidiumBromide says:

    I absolutely agree with every point made here -- I would never consider the work I do to be entirely "mine" -- it was all based on the work done before me, and hence my way was paved by the post-docs in the lab who started the projects, and the foundations were laid down by the PIs. I mean, that's why the PIs name goes on every paper, right? It's different in science than in a field such as math or political science (my undergraduate degrees) where there are often just one or two people on an entire publication, because you don't have the entire lab infrastructure. But in science, there are SO MANY people involved, and absolutely my work, even though I am the one running the experiments at 2am, and analyzing the data at 6am, and not sleeping for weeks at end, is only possible because other people determined things before me, and my PI wrote the grants to get the $$, and thus it is every bit as much theirs as it is mine. I would never, ever question that.But do you have any advice for dealing with a situation in which a PI overlooks who does the majority of the work, and instead assigns authorship based on seniority? In a recent paper, I did a very significant amount of the actual experiments, contributing most of the figures, but was pushed very far back down on the author list. When I asked why I was at the bottom, and a post-doc who contributed just two sub-letters to a figure was well above me, his response was merely that she was a post-doc, and I am a graduate student, so she automatically belongs ahead of me. Absolutely, I agree that it is shared work -- I was not fighting that it was MY work and I wanted to save it for MY paper, because I agree it had more impact in a paper written by another post-doc, but rather, is it truly fair for me to contribute so much, and be shoved to the bottom just because I am a mere Ph.D. student and not a post-doc? Does the graduate student lose entitlement to the amount of effort put into a experiment just because s/he is less experienced, and a post-doc can do 1/100th of the work and jump up several author spots, just because s/he has already earned the Ph.D.?

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    When I asked why I was at the bottom, and a post-doc who contributed just two sub-letters to a figure was well above me, his response was merely that she was a post-doc, and I am a graduate student, so she automatically belongs ahead of me.This is despicable behavior, and grossly violates appropriate norms of attribution of scientific credit.

  • Arlenna says:

    See, your situation represents on of those bad apple issues. That is a really dumb and unfair reason for you to be pushed further down the list when you legitimately contributed materially and intellectually to the work. Pecking order absolutely should NOT affect the authorship or authorship order--and in ambiguous situations where two or more people really did contribute equally, special notes should reflect that. Your PI obviously has some trouble recognizing his/her role in guiding/managing the team--because what was done there does not accurately reflect the contributions to the work.Now, since submission of a manuscript requires a statement that all authors agree with what is being submitted, you could possibly have a case to complain to the editor about the author order. HOWEVER I have a feeling nobody in their right mind would suggest that a graduate student do that unless they have already finished and defended, since their PI (who has already demonstrated a lack of seeing fairness and rightness here) would probably punish them in many ways for doing that. BUT if you have a communicative relationship with your PI and are confident enough with extra cojones and a backup plan, you could always try exploring the policies for the journal to which the manuscript is being submitted and bringing those to the attention of your PI. It may be possible to gently and straightforwardly point out that the level of your material contribution to the manuscript, according to journal policy, merits a more prominent authorship position. HOWEVER again, on the other hand, when you're a grad student OR post-doc planning to go on to an academic position, it doesn't really matter at all where you are in the list if you aren't either first or last author. So in some ways, the frustration and stress of trying to move a few notches one way or the other is not worth it unless it's an argument for deserved first authorship.

  • Odyssey says:

    Great post. Some TT faculty members take a long time to come to this realization. You're head of the game.redundantifyingGreat word! I think...

  • Anonymous says:

    In a recent paper, I did a very significant amount of the actual experiments [..] but was pushed very far back down on the author list [...] his response was merely that she was a post-doc, and I am a graduate student, so she automatically belongs ahead of me.OK, that is of course sheer nonsense, and anyone saying that is dishonest (and thus dangerous).However, as far as you own bottom line is concerned, I am not sure whether authorship order is worth getting so aggravated about. It has always been my sense that, when someone is out there looking for a postdoc or an assistant professor, one is really trying to identify who did the actual work, regardless of the order. Letters of recommendation will be written, phone calls will be made, and one's reputation will be on the line. To misrepresent grossly the actual state of affairs, to promote someone mediocre over someone else more deserving, is a bad strategy in my opinion, and in the long run will hurt everyone...Now, some people think that running the actual experiment (or doing the calculation) is always the most important contribution, but sometimes it is not. It takes experience to figure that out, though, no question about it.Okham (prevented by blogger from commenting non-anonymously)

  • Candid Engineer says:

    I really value the non-redundancy of which you speak. You have to admire the labs that run like well-oiled machines, everyone doing their thing, working in harmony. I can't wait until the day when I can stop worrying about the details. Details can be so exhaustively boring.

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