Gaining Say In One's Career---------Mentoring, Coaching, or Coddling------Nanny State of Academia  


Sir Tim Hunt
Eminent Colleague Registered
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 37
May 13, 2020 2:49 pm  

Given DX's post on coaching and mentoring in the life sciences, I thought the forum would enjoy the following exchange I had with a professor about gaining a faculty position in academia w/o a post-doc given my prior experience pre PhD. The key question he failed to address was how do you get a say in your own career when PI's want to control it ({ } him):

If I decide to stay in the academic ranks, what would it take for me to position myself for a faculty position at an University like X or a scientist or advisor position with the Federal government. Given the unusual path that I have taken, I don’t know what is possible. Would a post-doc be necessary?

[A lot would depend on the nature of the institution – R1 vs mixed res/teaching vs teaching. The R1 is going to look for grant-in-hand or high likelihood of getting one within 3 years so not doing a postdoc would be a non-starter. For the others, they would still be looking for fundable research (perhaps an R15) to involve undergrads, but your salary would primarily be hard dollars. Government is a bit different. You would still need a strong postdoc if you wanted to be a lab head, but to do a postdoc at NIH, etc, that would lead to a staff scientist position is less competitive. Alternatively, there are still institutions (mostly liberal arts) that hire folks straight out of their PhD – and sometimes with just the MS.

It is relatively common for postdocs with your maturity and skills to transition to research faculty positions in association with a tenure track faculty. At X University research assistant professors can petition their chair to change to tenure track, without going through the college APT committee if it looks like that is a more appropriate classification given contributions and career potential. Once you get promoted to research associate professor though you have to go through college APT – a good bit higher bar so if you were to go this route be sure to look at the faculty handbook. Another option is to jump to a different school with the research faculty credential.]

Presently, I am financially independent and can live off my investments. Thus, I want to make sure that I have a say in my own career development. I can walk away from any opportunity and need a coach to guide me and let me go. Just let me do it because I should know best. Frankly now, I don’t trust any stranger or faculty who I don’t know. I don’t know how you get any independence working in academia and have a say in how you develop your own career. There are certain things that I want to accomplish but I don’t want to have to argue with a faculty professor to get what I want. For example, I would like to take some classes to fill in the gaps in my training (i.e. pharmacology, toxicology, immunology, analytical chemistry), clinical trials exposure, and credentials to act as an expert witness or consultant to the federal government. These items take a supportive academic advisor and could never be achieved in X's lab, regardless of what you accomplish. It seems to me that there are certain faculty members who have the track record and ability to the “punch” the ticket of aspiring scientists versus others who only care about top tier publications or don’t have that credibility to help their lab staff (e.g. X Professor versus No name Prof).

[You hit this square on the head – there are precious few faculty who allow (or even require) their mentee to take charge of their career development plan. Certainly, this is the case for medical schools where the vast majority of a faculty’s salary is dependent upon extramural funding. You are more likely to find a ZW-like mentor at a comprehensive university, and then more likely that they are NSF funded. NSF restricts faculty salary to no more than 2 months (aggregate of all NSF grants in hand) so the university, and academia, is the main driver. I review for NSF and am always impressed with the attitudes and quality of the other panel members – top notch. You might consider doing a Federal RePORTER search for researchers funded in your area of interest and then finding out what you can about their mentoring history.]

I can pay to overcome some of these hurdles but I need someone to support and allow me to do the necessary items to control my career. Personally, I feel that I have been hampered in my career by the perception that the terminal degree (PhD or MD) is only way that one can gain credibility with one’s peers; this eliminates me from most opportunities because I worked as technician for along time and then got my PhD.

[Again, you are spot-on. The system takes the easy way out by promoting this notion. There are classic examples where it is busted by folks who drop out of undergrad (e.g. Bill Gates). I don’t know how they manage to get the respect they deserve but I’m quite sure it involves someone who is their advocate that has a position of power already (e.g. ZW-like). I must say that my career has benefitted tremendously from such advocates. I never really wanted to be faculty except for the freedom it affords, but I found that freedom in working with someone who gave me full reign – I have skills and expertise that he needed to bump up his research and he had a perspective of research that I found fascinating. He was a chair so nearly impossible to get time with so I just asked if it was okay for me to use my best judgement with running the lab – and if I screwed up that he would tell me and I wouldn’t do that again. It was an ideal postdoc that led to my getting onto the faculty track. I was able to stay funded for over 30 years based on him giving me a chance to do just what you are seeking. That led to several others who believed in me because of that initial mentor’s belief. So, the circumstance you seek is out there.]

My take away is that there are only certain professors who can punch your ticket and others who either don't care about the careers of their lab staff or don't have the influence to make it happen. My point to him was treat people adults versus coddling them like a child. They are adults let them do what they think is best and guide them along the way; don't control, that's not mentoring. I believe this attitude is what is holding graduate students and post-docs back; wrong PI and too much controlling and not enough guidance (i.e. true coaching). Nanny state attitude, what gives?

It seems it is all about raising grant money and working with the right PI who can punch that ticket to make it happen. Most students are probably working for the wrong PIs.

Honorable Maven Registered
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 627
May 14, 2020 8:35 am  

Hi Colleauge47451:

In any career path, there is a general process to follow that builds on necessary experience, productivity, performance, and constructive networking.  Academia is no different.

The reality is, and lets face facts, in an academic track, you need the buy-in of your principal investigator, especially your post-doc advisor that's why choosing the right post-doc laboratory, data-topic which then links to PI and their network is so important.  Because usually, that's the network you will build you career with.

Thereafter that choice, NO discussion happens about career really happens until one thing. And ONE thing only.  DATA.  Good Data. And Data that is of interest to the genearal area where you're conducting the research.   And that means the God's of Experimental Work are on your side AND you're technically (hands are good) and "smart".  I.e. you're producing data consistent with the field's interest.

 With good publishable data, then conversations start happening, such as where to publish (i.e. congresses, where you then start networking your with PI's usual suspects) AND when to start looking for grants and writing.  You can start talking about RO1s and stuff that's not a BS conversation but real. This was the case with my post-doc PI.  Luckily, I choose a lab that was well established with the techniques, in the field and a PI with strong network with the "usual suspects" aka the leading experts who would the ones that would working should I have moved up in the academic ladder.  I got data fast, and early in my short post-doc some good career discussion was happening..because I had DATA.  And you'll see, that's a generally theme, most people to have moved in career be it tto a high profile nobel prize post-doc lab to, a first tenure track role, all having in common data in the form of publications, historic evidence of receiving grants awards, and network of PIs backing them from their field.  Converstations changes drastically with data in hand.  Until I had that data, to be honest, I was a write-off ..and that's about right to be different to an employee newly hired, no value until they start delivering.   Conversations then are on the LOWER order of how to get experiments to work and what controls to use. For get career discussions. Those are not earned yet.

And that means, there is individual effort first and foremost.  One is proactively pumping the data out, synthesizing communications, and actively looking at grant opps and bringing that forward to the PI, like any career inside or outside academia its the individual moving things forward and that's where you get the say.    And it's deciding WHEN to have those conversations, I'd say OK when you join the lab, let your interest and desires known, but then....the individual has to start delivering! (just like corporate).

The challenge then becomes, lack of data. Or data that's not that exciting or publishable or publishable but of little interest and so on.  Then that's when a hard look in the mirror from the individual in needed.   MAYBE THAT's when a COACH is needed, not so much a Mentor, to help you reflect internally on what it is you want and next steps for your personal self.

I took my decision to leave my Post-doc for varied reasons, but NOT because I didn't have data.  Not because I was not having career discussions with my PI, Not because I was not networking with the "usual suspects" and Not because I was not applying for grants.  I wanted something else. And that is when, I no longer needed my PI both post-doc or gradschool technically, but my grad-school PI DID help me on my non-academic ambitions via provision of reference letters.  But I didn't fully need them per se.

So when you start looking at jobs that no longer require your academic networks, then ofcourse the conversation changes and then in the early to mid stages of a non-academic career, you don't need your boss or supervisor to say change companies and grow by switching companies, you'll still need them to grow within the company - this is were productivity, performance, and communication saavy, leadership competencies come into play.   At some point later in the non-academic path, and depending how far you go, you may find your world very small.  So then, all of a sudden you're well kinda known as in my case. Names you know and thus they know you, start to pop up in places - you start seeing your network getting more connected and Globally across countries and oceans!  My network is broad and people actually in my field and area are in generally a less than 2 degrees of separation from me. People can easily get an read on me if they want, even if they don't know me, they'll have access to someone who knows me.  So just be advised even in industry, you need your network of ex-supervisors and so on at a certain point, they'll be the ones will start into influence your career ops. Want it or not!!

And say in your career continues to be your individual performance, productivety, "reputation", where other's are talking and pointing to.

So point is, for some of the jobs you're looking at, there is a process. And you need buy-in and one needs to take a hard look and decision on where to apply your efforts and jobs to target. There are jobs for example in gov't agencies linked to grants admistrations where you may need the backing of you PI. That's OK, That's natural. That's organic, that's needed for the role most likely. 

There are other jobs in the federal gov and private sectors where you DON"T need backing you PI, but you need references right? so maybe you look there. And you don't need to have the traditional process.

And this again is where a COACH is useful especially in career transitions stages i.e. you need to figure out next steps.   A MENTOR is good for "within career" moves and development.