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Tideliar

I am scientist by training, inclination and temperament. However, this is a blog, not a lab. The title reflects my passion for hyperbole, so don't take me too seriously. I don't. I was a technician in a physiology lab, got my PhD in molecular genetics and neuroscience, was a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics and now am a Project Manager in a Clinical Science/Biomedical Informatics institute. I am a scientific jack-of-all-trades, and very happy because of it. I write about science that catches my eye, making the transition away from the lab bench, and the slightly odd and moist boundary where science culture meets the public. I am an Englishman by birth, an American by temperament and if I were you I wouldn't lend me money.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

A friend of mine has a bit of a quandary right now. He has an 'untrainable' staff member. It's quite strange and I thought that I'd see what the blogosphere thought. Obviously I've changed some facts here and blatantly haven't asked his permission to do this.

My friend, let's call him Malcolm, is in the second year of the TT at a small State University in the US (small university, not state. Then again, I suppose the state is quite small compared to some, so maybe it works either way...Sorry..this oddly long digression is now getting recursive...(I wonder how many times I'll go off topic while writing this (this comment, not this post))).

Anyway, Dr. Malc was fortunate enough to walk into his gig with a sweet project and some nice prelim data so he secured funding very quickly. For those who are about to stop reading out spite and jealousy, he doesn't work in basic sciences, so don't worry he's not stealing y'alls thunder. Malc needs someone to do the basic science side of his project while he focuses on the clinical aspects of the research so he hired a postdoc. This person was hired as a Research Associate because it's a nicer package - benefits, decent health insurance etc.

Very generous, I can hear you saying. And that's our boy, Dr. Malc. Heart of gold and generous to a fault.

This postdoc RA seems to have got into his head that because he was hired as an RA, he's not really a postdoc lab rat, but more like a non-tenure track Research Assistant Professor. And this is where and why things are derailing kind of fast.

The RA seems to think he can act independently and has full autonomy to do so. Malc has asked for things to be done and they usually are...eventually when it's convenient to the RA, rather than convenient for Malc, which is to convenient say for the larger project. One might argue that because the RA is the boots-on-the-floor worker it would be more likely that he would know when things need to be done by, and that the PI should be concentrating on the 'larger picture'. Drug Monkey and Odyssey and many others (whose refs I can't find), have written about this at length elsewhere.

However, in a clinical science setting it is the basic scientist who is out of his element, not the clinician. Also, the lab is run differently to a basic science lab such that the PI is much more involved with the day-to-day running of the project than one might expect, at least until another MD joins.

Malc is starting to notice that there are problems with the quality of the work being done as well. It turns out that RA acts like the grad student and tech are 'his property' (according to the tech). He spends a great deal of time arguing with the grad student about how things should be done, and expects others to clean up after him when he's "finished". And I don't mean clean up as in re-stock the chemicals, or empty the biohzard bin, I mean as in leaves errors in the work that others need to notice and fix. At least...that's what they assume.

I'm wondering if the guy is just a lazy motherfucker who does half-assed work.

The latest in the Tale of Woe from the MalcLab is that the guy just tried to submit a paper without really telling anyone. Now the first reaction here, and I certainly had it, was


WHAT THE FUCK GET OUT OF MY LAB YOU LYING THIEVING BASTARD!



But he put everyone's names on the paper and they were getting ready to write this work up anyway.

It's like he either thinks he's doing Malc a favour by doing it for him, or he thinks it's his job to do. And the quandary is that I can't figure out which it is. Or rather, I think I know which one it is, but I can't prove it and thus my advice to Malc (fire the twat) goes unheeded. Something that makes me hesitate (and fortunately for this guy, stops Malc from taking my advice) is that when Malc stopped the RA from publishing and looked at the paper it was utter fucking shite. Like really. Like, half written paragraphs, poorly articulated ideas and discussion and references and figures out of sequence (Figure 3 was the first one referenced in the text, yet the second in sequence embedded in the paper)...plus a hundred little things that...if you're trained correctly you would have automatically have not made.

See where this is going?

If you look at the whole pattern you see a litany of issues that one can't imagine a PhD would make...timing errors, authority errors, manuscript errors, data errors...

I asked Malc what the guy's references were like. Guess what he said?

"I didn't bother. He had a good degree from a good school. He interviewed well and could talk-the-talk in the interview..."

Dude. Fuck. Sigh. To be employed the guy to provide credentials to the HR department, who, with all due respect, wouldn't know a photocopy of a PhD diploma from a photocopy of my (charming, firm and pert) ass. So he could be a fraud. Or he could be a former senior postdoc or even junior PI who got canned and is using this as a second innings. I think this might explain some of the authority issues too.

The blogosphere's thoughts on this intriguing case, and how you might remedy/deal with it are much appreciated...

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GMP
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Oh man, how could he hire the guy without recommendations..? *facepalm*
Recommendations are extremely important!

The answer is clear (straight from your post):

lazy motherfucker who does half-assed work

there are problems with the quality of the work being done

tech are 'his property'

a hundred little things that...if you're trained correctly you would have automatically have not made.

timing errors, authority errors, manuscript errors, data errors...

In other words, Malc should let him go sooner rather than later.
And vow never to hire without recommendations again.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Wow, I'd say he made his bed by not checking this guy's background.

Odyssey
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I'm with GMP, Dr. Malc should fire the git. Now. No hesitation. He's only to get worse.
chall

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It's a tough thing to let someone go .then again, Dr M probably needs to think about himself and his rep. Not to mention that his tech and grad student seem to misunderstand who's in charge.

I would recommend Dr M to sit down with the RA, tell him about what's going on, repeat why he was hired, make sure he knows WHY the manuscript was ugly, tell him up front on "this is how the submission process of an article happens" and I am YOUR boss and you Don't do anything without checking with ME. Then email him the notes of the meeting and give him a formal "let's see how this works out in the next few months" since clearly it's not been clear to you earlier.

And if he continues to mess up and pull the stuff he's done before, write him up and document the complaint to HR before it gets reversed. I'm sure that the RA will know "what to do in order to get bought out" since he could apparently talk the talk.

And yeah, Dr M might never hire someone again without checking any references... that might be the first I've heard of it - since he didn't (?) even check with someone who he liked... you know the old "this is a friend, could yuo do me a favour and get him in the lab"... since even that is a reference. Not to mention that he might never had a probation period?!!?

Genomic Repairman
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First off Malc should always check references but that doesn't matter this fucker is toxic and has to go. If it were me, I'd walk into the lab first thing tomorrow morning and tell him to pack his shit and get the fuck out.
Dr. Girlfriend

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The majority of PIs I interviewed with seemed like they were never going to initiate the subject of "what they expect of a postdoc". This is an essential conversation for both parties because some postdoc really are expected to be independent in all but name (although who the fuck thinks they can submit a manuscript without even informing the PI?). Other postdocs are treated like grad students or technicians, and some are unable to function without constant instruction.

My point is that nature of the postdoc-PI relationship can vary considerably. Ideally it should be a good match, but it is up to both parties to be up front regards their needs and expectations. If your friend did not speak to references then I doubt he really spoke to his postdoc about what his expectations were. Your friend needs to have that conversation NOW, and if the postdoc decides to agree to what (I am guessing were previously unspoken) terms, a grace period granted. He owes it to the other members of the lab who have to deal with the guy day-to-day.

I would feel bad for your friend expect that my grad school PI was a nice person who hired a douce-bag without ever speaking to him! Everyone suffers, including grad students who have clean up after him and protect their own experiments. A nice PI will want to give the douce-bag multiple chance, but they do not have to work next to him. One bad apple turns the whole lab bitter and moral and productivity takes a dive. The tech is already complaining so I would not waste too much time giving him a chance after any "misunderstanding" has been cleared and the job description clearly stated.

Nico
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timing errors, authority errors, manuscript errors, data errors

Nico
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Ooops, premature posting there^

timing errors, authority errors, manuscript errors, data errors

I'd say the first two can be worked on, depending on the temperaments involved. Manuscript errors, well, some people are just bad at writing up, but there are courses. The data though, that guy was hired as RA, I'd have thought his data is clean. If he can't produce good data at his experience level, but the tech and grad student can (on the same project), my thinking is that he isn't going to improve in that department.

By all means be nice, discuss the thing and put up a trial period, as Dr Girlfriend mentioned, but I don't have much hope.

Odyssey
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I'm going to expand on why he should be fired since people seem to have missed something rather important. The guy appears to be a problem in that he is lazy, he's not a good experimentalist, has authority issues and apparently can't write to save his life. That combination is bad and might warrant getting rid of him. Or might not. Maybe he can be retrained.

The one thing that has absolutely earned him a one-way ticket out the door is the whole "going to submit a manuscript without telling anyone" issue. It is completely irrelevant that the work was going to be written up anyway. It is completely irrelevant that the manuscript was very poorly written. The only relevant thing is that the RA was apparently going to submit this manuscript without the permission of the other authors. Not just Dr. Malc, but ALL the other authors. To do this is scientific misconduct. All authors listed on a manuscript are responsible for it's contents. All authors must agree to its submission. Submitting a manuscript that the other authors haven't even seen is, in my book, unforgivable. He's a postdoc/RA. He knows better.

Nico
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Odyssey said:
Maybe he can be retrained.


He's got an effing PhD, he is trained. I agree with you that the submission is just wrong, but what really gets me is the poor data. All journals I know request signatures from all authors so his little go-it-alone stint would have come up anyway, good talk/discipline meeting and everyone can get over it. Poor data can happen, but if you're the RA and your grad student generate better data (assuming no one is doctoring anything) then something is really wrong. Techs can be amazingly good at what they do, so it isn't necessarily surprising to find one that generates excellent data.

Give the tech a raise, fire the RA, hire a post-doc and check the bloody references I say!

Odyssey
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@Nico:
Actually his behavior calls into question whether or not he was really trained. I wonder just what did happen in his grad school lab?

My point is that someone who is guilty of misconduct at this level does not deserve a place in science. There are plenty of well-trained, honest postdocs who deserve his position far more than he does.

Nico
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@Odissey
Hi behaviour does sound weird, I know even as a grad student I would never have done anything of the sort. I was more giving him the benefit of the doubt re. PhD, or maybe he was graduated to get rid of him, I've heard of that happening (at MPhil level), which would have come up in a quick phone call to the referees.

Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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He's got to go. In a clinical research setting, it's vital to have a researcher who knows what's going on and can get things done. I agree that he may not have had proper grad school training. A more experienced postdoc would have been a better choice. Dr. Malc should be willing to give him the recommendations he truly deserves so the postdoc doesn't screw things up for anyone else!
microbiologist xx

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DUDE. I can't believe this person was submitting a paper on his own! WTF?
Personally, I'd fire the person. I've seen too many labs keep idiots like this around b/c they don't have the balls to get rid of them. Maybe the impression is that they are only hurting themselves, but in actuality it is hurting the entire lab. In this case the guy, who apparently doesn't know his ass from his elbow, is giving instruction to techs and grad students.



Evie
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Well, being the blunt Israeli that I am, I of course say sit him down for a heart felt (cut throat) one on one talk, no bs, get to the bottom of this. Yes, it may lead to tears, but fuck man, he hired someone to do the job right, he ain't doing it right. If it all isn't resolved in that talk, FIRED.

Dr. O
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The submitting a paper without anyone else's knowledge thing has got me all kinds of riled up; that alone would get this guy fired immediately. Of course, not checking references was Malc's first fatal flaw - hopefully this can be chalked up to a good learning experience in who to trust for a nice guy.
Mr. Gunn

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I know hiring work differently in academia, but something's going wrong here. You don't hire or fire someone based on a judgement of what they've done after the fact.

You either have a clear job description and performance reviews, or you get sued for firing someone who doesn't think they should have been fired. No doubt all kinds of weird stuff happened here, but subjectively weighing up how bad it was and if it's fireable after the fact is just asking for all kinds of trouble. Your "friend" needs to march off promptly to the HR department and have a little chat with someone there. By trying to be nice and informal, they could be setting themselves up for a world of hurt.

The fact that this is just a one-on-one situation may limit the damage here, but what if your friend has more than one person working for him in the future? Without an objective, up-front standard, he's opened up the possibility of all sort of politicking and nonsense. In short, he's doing it wrong & really needs an intervention.

Evie
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It looks like the blogosphere has spoken :)

Tideliar
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Sorry for being an absentee BlogLord, and thank you all for commenting and reading.

So far (commenting as I read your comments), Chall and Dr. Girlfriend have hit the nail on the head for how I feel about this and how I feel about how this situation developed.

Oh, and Dr. Girlfriend, where I'm from a hired a "douce-bag" is something entirely different! (sorry, I hate it when people do that to me too, but douce-bag was too awesome to avoid...)

Tideliar
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@Odyssey The only relevant thing is that the RA was apparently going to submit this manuscript without the permission of the other authors. Not just Dr. Malc, but ALL the other authors. To do this is scientific misconduct. All authors listed on a manuscript are responsible for it's contents. All authors must agree to its submission. Submitting a manuscript that the other authors haven't even seen is, in my book, unforgivable.

THIS

As the old aphorism goes, as scientists we have nothing but our reputations. All it takes is one bad paper, one bad grant, one bad X and you can be very seriously damaged, especially if you're junior ranked - you don't have the back-up, "Oh that's an anomaly look at the rest of my grants/publications" etc. It would scare the shit out of me TBH and if roles were reversed he would have been suspended immediately while I debated his future with the Chair.

"As the old aphorism goes, as scientists we have nothing but our reputations."

Because it might be (I doubt it, but to play Devil's Advocate) that all he's trying to do is make himself invaluable...

Tideliar
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@MXX: Thanks for stopping by! Missed you :)

Personally, I'd fire the person. I've seen too many labs keep idiots like this around b/c they don't have the balls to get rid of them.

Ditto. And that worries about me this incident. Repeat after me, CPP was right, it's not a Carebear's Fucking Tea Party.

Tideliar
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And Mr. Gunn hits the HR nail on the head.

Once you're out of your probationary period you can't just fire someone (unless it's egregious malfeasance). Everything needs to be documented and you need to show that you've tried multiple interventions and nothing has worked.

HR runs the show and they're under orders not to let the place get sued so...sucks to be you Dr. Malc.

Nico
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@Tide, I must have missed that episode of care bears...
microbiologist xx

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I missed you too. It seems like everyone moved while I was on vacation. B.T.W. I'm totally jealous of your new digs. :)

Tideliar
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@Nico, it was a great episode

@MXX - shiny aren't they! I really need to play with my CSS. But...shh...the overlord watches us...he...doesn't like it when we...


...wait!...what's that sou...


Thomas Joseph
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Write the person a great letter of recommendation and pawn them off onto someone else.

Tideliar
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I can't see him doing that. He's more the massive emotional breakdown and try and fix everything type, TBH.

I've nearly done your version once. I ended up not feeling it was fair to perpetuate the horror of this person and just told them I couldn't write them a good letter. With the note that if I was contacted independently I was honor bound to report to the truth.

It sucked.
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