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Monday, January 18, 2038

Be forewarned, this is a rant.

So Sunday night I received an email from my supervisor, RedBull.  It's a doosy.  In the email, she states that I have not made it clear in my Research Statement (for the tt apps) that my accomplishments in her lab are part of her research program.   Despite the fact that within the statement, it clearly says, "As a postdoc in such and such lab, I accomplished the following.."  Secondly, she believes that my proposed future research overlaps too closely with her current grant and her grant-yet-to-be-written.  I gave her my statements in the second last week of September and asked for her feedback, which I got in the form of an email.

Without giving the details of the email, there are three reasons why all I have to say is, "Wow, just wow." 

First, my recent data analysis (as of 1 1/2 mths ago) revealed X, something that was not detailed in her grant and because I was still working on the analysis I hadn't yet showed her this result.  This result, X is interesting but not really surprising.  Given my reading on a very tangential but related aspect of X, I realized that it does suggest that one possible future route.  A route that matches my expertise and background not hers.  This future route was clearly outlined in my research statement.  Before I wrote the statment, I double checked her current grant to make sure that I didn't overlap with this work and any of her ongoing projects.  Because it didn't, I went ahead and wrote up my idea.  Now she is claiming that this is the future of her research program.  Her actual words in the email were that I haven't shown any indepedence of thought and that my future directions overlap too much with her grant-yet-to-be-written.  My work was derivative and not original.  All of the 5 faculty members that I had look at this statement thought it was great and were extremely supportive.  She, however, has decided that I should rewrite the statement only days before it is due. 

The second reason I say, "Wow, just wow." was that when I interviewed for this postdoc position, I clearly asked if I would be allowed to take part of the system and use it to establish a research program.  Because of her willingness to share the system, I accepted the position.  On two subsequent occassions, I voiced my interest in doing Y and Z with this system because my training was in this area and it complemented her current work.  And her response in no way indicated that she was opposed to this. 

The third reason I say, "Wow, just wow." is that it's a research statement bitch, not a grant application. What you propose to do and what you acutally do are never the same thing.

I should not be surprised by this response, but over and over again, bad behavior in academics continues to amaze me.  Time and again RedBull has shown herself to be a "greedy" supervisor who pays lipservice to the idea of mentorship.   I am disappointed because her email clearly belies a lack of trust in our relationship.  In my opinion, science cannot progress without the free exchange of ideas.  And this is only possible when there is trust that the other party will respect the creativity and ideas of the other. I might as well be in biotech.  Clearly, this will affect how I communicate my ideas to her in the future. 

I am absolutely not rewriting my research statement at this point.  And frankly, I don't care if I work on this organism or another - I have nothing invested so nothing is really lost.  And I'm not worried about running out of ideas, I'm a creative and conceptual based scientist who is happy to work any system to answer what I think are the really cool questions.

But it does raise a larger and perhaps a more delicate issue, how do PIs deal with trainees who are interested in taking a part of the system to establish a research program?  I know it varies from lab to lab, discipline to discipline.  I'd be interested to hear what other people's experiences have been with this issue.  Presumably things are outlined explicitly before it can get too far.

The timing of this email reflects poor communication and mentorship on her part.  As one tenured faculty member, whose words of wisdom I trust, said, "This is not a good postdoc for you and she is a very poor mentor. I'm so very sorry. "

Yup, and people wonder why there are so many disgruntled postdocs.

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Dave Bridges
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I have thought about that a bit too.  I mean obviously the first thing you do is going to be somewhat derivative of your postdoctoral work.  Starting over in a totally new field is probably not something that the committees desire.  What would have happened though, if you hadnt shown her this and just wrote it yourself?  Does she have future propriety over anything you might do that might even be the slightest bit related to your postdoctoral training?  I would like to hear what other people think though about how much feedback they recieved from their postdoctoral mentor on their research plans, then eventually grants

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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This is a sticky situation but it sounds like your boss is being kind of unreasonable.  In my old lab, we had one grad student who got a job as a professor in China and requested we send him every reagent he ever made.  My grad mentor had no problem sending him the stuff, which surprised me, and only said, "Our field needs more smart researchers."  So maybe there are two schools of thought here.  One is to be competitive and hide all of your secrets in a walled garden and the other is to reach out and collaborate to make the field better.  There *really* isn't anything preventing you from going ahead with your research, but it could make things awkward down the road depending on how influential your mentor is.  The politics of academic science is ridiculously stupid and petty.

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If I read this right, you are finishing a postdoc and are going to apply for TT positions next and start your own research program with ideas developed independently using the model system of this lab you are getting ready to leave.

Is it possible to convince her to let you have your ideas but give her co-authorship on the next 1-2 papers that you publish as part of your own program? Perhaps she'll be amenable to negotiation if it boosts her citations and makes her look more productive even though she is doing none of the work.

She can't do the experiments you propose since you have the skills and she doesn't, and since you aren't a mind reader and have no idea what was in her "grant-yet-to-be-written", your ideas couldn't possibly be derivative. It sounds like she is scrambling to keep your ideas.

I think you have the upper hand. She needs you more than you need her but for the sake of getting along, let her save face and tell her you'll give her middle authorship on your first paper after you leave the lab. Maybe you can offer some other incentives in exchange for playing nice. 

This is politics and it's good practice. You'll have more opportunities to play the politics game in the future. Take this as a great learning experience and see if you can smooth it out for her but get what you want. 

Biotech has the same politics, it's just usually about money, position, and power and not about ideas.

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@Dave What would have happened though, if you hadnt shown her this and just wrote it yourself?  Does she have future propriety over anything you might do that might even be the slightest bit related to your postdoctoral training? 

Well, my friend at the R1 university has advised me to keep my cards close to my chest and not tell her anything about my applications in the future nor discuss my ideas.  In the end, no one owns an organism, but the problem is she may sit on grant panels or be the reviewer of future manuscripts.  Of course, the reverse is also true.  At some point, I am also likely to review her grants and papers. For her, it's a big mistake, kinda of like shooting yourself in the foot.

@Brian So maybe there are two schools of thought here.  One is to be competitive and hide all of your secrets in a walled garden and the other is to reach out and collaborate to make the field better.

There are two schools.  My PhD supervisor said that she would never react like that.  I think that if you explore WHO underlies those two schools of thoughtSmart, creative and top notch scientists don't need to feel threatened by others' work.  Only those whose are at best average and insecure are threatened.  RedBull falls into the latter category.

@Jade  Is it possible to convince her to let you have your ideas but give her co-authorship on the next 1-2 papers that you publish as part of your own program?

I guess the question I have to ask myself is - do I really want a collaborator like that?  It seems the best thing to do is start on a different system. 


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