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phd / graduate student stuff

finding a good mentor: asking the right questions

As I (and many many others as well) have previously written, finding a supportive mentor is all about asking the right questions of both the prospective mentor as well as the mentor’s trainees.  As you are going through the process, think about these qualities that you may find desirable in a mentor:

  • accessibility: does the mentor have an open door and an approachable attitude?  is the mentor around or often away on trips/conferences?
  • empathy: does the mentor have insight into what the trainee is experiencing?
  • open-mindedness: does the mentor have respect for the trainee’s individuality, autonomy, working styles and career goals that may be different from mentor?
  • consistency: is the mentor reliable in action and principles?
  • patience: does the mentor understand that success can sometimes depend as much on luck as hard work?  does the mentor understand that people make mistakes and learn at their own rates?
  • honesty: does the mentor communicate truth–whether good or bad–about the trainee’s work, the world and the trainee’s chances out there
  • savvy: does the mentor have a sense (and communicates it) of the pragmatic aspects of career development?
  • loyal: does the mentor value the trainee’s contributions and support as well as defend the trainee from outsiders trying to take advantage of the trainee?

I have previously written at length about finding a good mentor for both the research and medical careers and what a good mentor can mean.  I harp on this point over and over again because good mentorship is key to kicking off a successful career.  So if you are looking at a prospective mentor, try to hone in on these qualities and when talking to the mentor’s trainees in private, specifically ask.  Better to find out sooner rather than later when it may be too late.

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who has a patent?!?!?!

Just like you want to know how many NIH grant the guy down the hall has, you’re probably also wondering if he has any patents.  While you toil away at the bench or in the clinic, this dude is probably raking in the dough from his patent on the little floaty things that hold eppendorf tubes in the hot water bath.  Do you want to find out?  Then go straight to the US patent office website and do a search!  This will take you to the advanced search page and just type in: IN/[LastName]-[Firstname] (for example: IN/doe-john) or you can leave the first name off (for example: IN/doe).  You might be shocked at what you find…

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non-r01 nih grants for new investigators

So if you’re starting out as a new investigator, you’re probably not going to get an R01 grant right off the bat.  There are, however, many NIH grants that are specifically aimed at new investigators for career development as a stepping stone to future application for an R01. 

I have a few buddies who are going through this process now and applying for many of these.  For those of you who aren’t up to this point yet, it may be useful to get familiar with some of these grants–at least know what they are referring to.  You will hear these terms being thrown around a lot in conversation and more importantly, it won’t be too long before this will be useful information for you to know. 

Code Description
R03 NIH Small Grant Program

  • Provides limited funding for a short period of time to support a variety of types of projects, including: pilot or feasibility studies, collection of preliminary data, secondary analysis of existing data, small, self-contained research projects, development of new research technology, etc.
  • Limited to two years of funding
  • Direct costs generally up to $50,000 per year
  • Not renewable
  • Utilized by more than half of the NIH ICs
  • See parent FOA
R15 NIH Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA)

  • Support small research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences conducted by students and faculty in health professional schools and other academic components that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds
  • Eligibility
  • Direct cost limited to $150,000 over entire project period
  • Project period limited to up to 3 years
  • All NIH ICs utilize except FIC an NCMHD
  • See parent FOA
R21 NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award

  • Encourages new, exploratory and developmental research projects by providing support for the early stages of project development. Sometimes used for pilot and feasibility studies.
  • Limited to up to two years of funding
  • Combined budget for direct costs for the two year project period usually may not exceed $275,000.
  • No preliminary data is generally required
  • Most ICs utilize
  • See parent FOA
K01
Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01)
  • This omnibus NIH K01 program is supported by NHGRI, NIA, NIAAA, NIAID, NIAMS, NIBIB, NICHD, NIDCD, NIDDK, NIDA, NIEHS, NIMH, NINDS, NINR, NCCAM, NCRR, and ODS. The purpose of the K01 program is to provide support and “protected time” (3-5 years) for an intensive, supervised career development experience in the biomedical, behavioral, or clinical sciences leading to research independence. Awards are not renewable, nor are they transferable from one principal investigator to another.

The Bernard Osher Foundation/NCCAM CAM Practitioner Research Career Development Award (K01)

  • This program is supported by NCCAM. The purpose of this K01 is to provide research training support for CAM Practitioners with clinical doctorates, who have had limited opportunities for research training, but a strong desire to pursue a career in CAM research.

NCI Mentored Research Scientist Development Award to Promote Diversity (K01)

  • The NCI invites K01 applications from individuals representative of groups that have been shown to be underrepresented in health-related science, who have been recipients of an NIH Research Supplement to Promote Diversity Award, any NRSA (individual F31/F32 or institutional T32), or can demonstrate that they have been supported in a mentored capacity within any research grant equivalent to an NIH peer-reviewed research grant.

NIDDK Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01)

  • The NIDDK invites K01 applications from advanced postdoctoral and/or newly independent research scientists (usually with a Ph.D. degree) in biomedical or behavioral sciences who are pursuing careers in research areas supported by the NIDDK.

NINDS Career Development Award to Promote Diversity in Neuroscience Research (K01)

  • Supported by NINDS, the objective of this program is to promote diversity among faculty-level neuroscience investigators who are competitively funded to conduct independent research.

NINR Mentored Research Scientist Development Award for Underrepresented or Disadvantaged Investigators (K01)

  • The purpose of this NINR K01 is to encourage the development of qualified underrepresented or disadvantaged nurse scientists to become independent investigators in research settings.
K02
Independent Scientist Award (K02)
  • This omnibus NIH K02 program is supported by NHLBI, NIA, NIAAA, NIAID, NICHD, NIDCD, NIDCR, NIDA, NIEHS, NIMH, NINDS, and ODS. The K02 provides support for newly independent scientists who can demonstrate the need for a period of intensive research focus as a means of enhancing their research careers. The K02 is intended to foster the development of outstanding scientists and to enable them to expand their potential to make significant contributions to their field of research.

K08
Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award (K08)
  • This omnibus NIH K08 program is supported by NCI, NEI, NHLBI, NIA, NIAAA, NIAID, NIAMS, NIBIB, NICHD, NIDCD, NIDCR, NIDDK, NIDA, NIEHS, NIGMS, NIMH, NINDS, NCCAM, and ODS. The K08 represents the continuation of a long-standing NIH program that provides support and “protected time” to individuals with a clinical doctoral degree for an intensive, supervised research career development experience in the fields of biomedical and behavioral research, including translational research. Individuals with a clinical doctoral degree interested in pursuing a career in patient-oriented research should refer to the NIH Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23).

NCI Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K08)

  • This NCI-sponsored K08 award is specifically designed to promote career development of racially and ethnically diverse individuals who are underrepresented in health-related science and for those who are committed to a career in cancer health disparities, biomedical, behavioral or translational cancer research.
K22
K23
Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23)
  • This omnibus NIH K23 program is supported by NCI, NEI, NHLBI, NIA, NIAAA, NIAID, NIAMS, NIBIB, NICHD, NIDCD, NIDCR, NIDDK, NIDA, NIEHS, NIGMS, NIMH, NINDS, NINR, NCCAM, and ODS. The purpose of the K23 is to support the career development of investigators who have made a commitment to focus their research endeavors on patient-oriented research. Clinically trained professionals or individuals with a clinical degree who are interested in further career development in biomedical research that is not patient-oriented should refer to the Mentored Clinical Scientist Career Development Award (K08).

NCI Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K23)

  • The NCI announce the availability of the K23 award for career development of ethnically and racially diverse individuals with a health professional doctoral degree from groups that have been shown to be underrepresented in health-related science.

If any of the readers have had experience with these grants or applying for them, please share your experience or any tips that you may have to offer in the comments…

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CRISP – the nih grant database

Be honest, you want to know what NIH grants the PI down the hall has.  Right?  Of course you do.  You want to know how good he’s got it and how that compares to your NIH funding situation.  Well, the completely open thing to do would be to ask but then you look nosey and the other PI might figure out your ulterior motive.  But you have another option: the CRISP database.

To quote from the CRISP website:

CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects) is a searchable database of federally funded biomedical research projects conducted at universities, hospitals, and other research institutions. The database, maintained by the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health, includes projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA), Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ), and Office of Assistant Secretary of Health (OASH). Users, including the public, can use the CRISP interface to search for scientific concepts, emerging trends and techniques, or identify specific projects and/or investigators.

So you can use this database to spy on any investigator’s NIH funding status.  But in all seriousness, the CRISP database can be a really useful tool if you are thinking of writing a grant or even starting a new project because you can see if someone is already funded to work on your project.  It can potentially save you a lot of time in not writing a grant that someone else already has (or at least give you an opportunity to sufficiently distinguish your own grant).  Moreover, by knowing who else is working on a similar project, you can either know who to contact for collaboration or help (if you need it) or in contrast, you’ll know who to hide your work from…

Addendum:

Thanks to the readers who pointed out that CRISP is no longer up and running.  But, for those of you who still have the morbid curiosity to see which cocksuckers have NIH funding while you languish away barely making ends-meet on foundation grants, there is the RePORT Expenditures and Results query tool at: http://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm

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laboratory interview questions for graduate students, post-docs and PIs

In the last post on the laboratory for graduate students, post-docs and PIs, I got into the basic approaches to the lab interview.  It appears that structured interviews, where every applicant is asked the same set of questions aimed at delving into the applicant’s abilities and personality, tend to produce the best results.  So how to prepare for the structured interview? 

If you are the interviewee: ideally you should just answer these questions honestly, on the spot in a very impromptu fashion (well, you should always answer questions honestly).  But sometimes these questions can catch you off guard and then you spend 10 minutes trying to remember what is a time when you had a conflict with a lab mate (at least an episode you can tell the interviewer about–leave out the fist fights).  So I’ve found that it can be really helpful to go over some sample questions before hand in order to jog my memory. 

If you are the interviewer: then you need to figure out what questions will be important in flushing out the applicants qualities, which you think are most important.

As I mentioned in the last post, with experience you will notice the same questions (in one shape or another) being recycled between interviews.  This is probably because these questions are good at bringing out the various qualities of applicants.  As a resource to you, below are some questions that I found in a pamphlet I got a while go, written for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Howard Hughes Medical Institute:

For evaluating experience and skills:

  • what is (are) your most significant accomplishment(s)
  • describe the part you played in conducting a specific project or implementing a new approach or technology in your lab
  • I see you have worked with [a specific technology or technique].  Tell me about its features and its benefits

For evaluating commitment and initiative:

  • why do you want to work in this lab?
  • where do you see yourself in 5 (or 10) years?
  • what kinds of projects do you want to do?  Why?
  • tell me how you stay current in your field?
  • describe a time when you were in charge of a project and what you feel you accomplished.
  • describe a project or situation in which you took initiative

For evaluating working and learning styles:

  • what motivates you to work?
  • would you rather work on several projects at a time or on one project?
  • do you learn better from books, hands-on experience or other people?
  • describe a time or project when you had to work as a part of a team?  What was the outcome of the team’s effort?
  • how would you feel about a leaving a project for a few hours to help someone else?
  • if you encountered a problem in lab, would you ask someone for help or would you try to deal with it yourself?
  • would it be a problem to work after hours or on the weekends, should the project need it?

For evaluating time management:

  • how do you prioritize your work?
  • how do you deal with multiple priorities competing for your time?

For evaluating decision making and problem solving:

  • what is the biggest challenge in your current job?  how are you dealing with it?
  • describe a time when you had to make a decision that resulted in unintended (or unexpected) consequences (either good or bad)?
  • describe a situation where you found it necessary to gather other opinions before you made a decision 

For evaluating interpersonal skills:

  • how important is it to you to be liked by your colleagues and why?
  • if you heard through the grapevine that someone didn’t care for you, what would you do, if anything?
  • describe a situation in which your work was criticized–how did you react to and address the situation?
  • name a scientist whom you like and respect.  What qualities do you like about this person?

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the laboratory interview for graduate students, post-docs and PIs

Whether you are interviewing others for a job or you, yourself are being interviewed for a job, it is not a bad idea to know what kinds of questions are asked and how.  In this post, let’s consider the general approaches that are taken in interviews.  I was browsing through the book At The Helm: A Laboratory Navigatorby Kathy Barker and found the following passage:

There are several styles of interviewing, some of which most P.I.s might find too manipulative and distasteful.  For example, stress interviewing subjects candidates to difficult and hostile questioning to test their reaction to thinking under stress.  Other techniques are more useful and can be incorporated in your interviewing protocol.  Behavioral interviewing assumes that, if you can really find out what happened in the past, you can predict the future.  Asking questions about how candidates dealt with a difficult project or with other people at a previous job can suggest how they will act in your lab, and these types of questions will probably form the basis for your interview.

Personality profiling attempts to define candidates’ underlying personality by analyzing their responses to questions about real or theoretical situations.  An example of this would be to ask, ‘Upon finding out that a close colleague had fudged data, would you approach the person or go directly to the P.I.?’

Another technique that is actually part of many postdoc interviews is the situational interview, when the candidate is placed in a situation that might actually be on the job.  Giving a seminar and having to field questions about one’s own experiments much as are done day to day, is an example of this.  Some P.I.s do give a test or request a demonstration of a technique from candidate technicians.

The only kind of interview that has had any consistent success in predicting performance in the workplace is the structured interview, in which all applicants are subjected to the same questions and are rated according to predetermined objective scoring (Gladwell 2000).  The questions should examine past or present behavior to try to define the candidate’s ability to do the job and to predict future performance in the lab. 

excerpted from  At The Helm: A Laboratory Navigatorby Kathy Barker, p. 88-90

In the course of interviews, though, you may use or experience (depending on which side of the interview you are on) any of these approaches.  In my experience, the stress testing has largely fallen out of favor as it usually turns applicants off and can result in interviewers losing a lot of good applicants for the job.  If you are the interviewer, consider what kinds of approaches (and in what situations) you will take.  If you are going for interviews, consider how you will react to these various approaches. 

In stress interviews I’ve found that questions are often based on fallacies or they are just illogical.  So, as the interviewee, you just have to pick out that fallacy or the breakdown in logic and calmly answer the question by addressing those weaknesses in the question.  When it comes to personality profiling, I’ve found that you just have to be yourself.  There often is no right or wrong answer to these questions so it’s best to just say what you would actually do.  With these types of questions, I sometimes will ask the interviewer what he/she would do.  With experience you may notice that most people seem to expect one particular answer to a specific question.  Whether you agree or not, it’s up to you to decide how that should impact your own opinion.  The situational interview can sometimes be “interesting”.  You are basically called upon to do your everyday activities but this time you’re being evaluated!  It’s weird, when you’re doing your everyday work, sometimes you just “do” but when you’re being watched there’s a greater component of “think” that’s included, which can throw you off of your rhythm.  So before you go on your interviews, try preparing by practicing some of your everyday activities (or at least those you would be expected to do on the new job) with the mindset that someone is watching you–i.e. really think through what you are doing rather than letting muscle memory take you through it. 

Finally, the only way to prepare for the structured interview is really to think about as many questions as possible that could be asked.  After you’ve conducted or been on a few interviews, it becomes pretty obvious that there are subset of questions (still a long list) that are often adapted in one way or another to every interview.  I will address these in the next post… 

That’s right–always keeping you hungry for more! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!

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MIT opencourseware

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity. If you’re looking to supplement your class notes with extra material or if you’re looking to brush up on a specific subject, why not start here? Most classes give access to syllabi, class notes and examinations.

mitopencourseware-picture1

What is MIT OpenCourseWare?

MIT OpenCourseWare is a free publication of MIT course materials that reflects almost all the undergraduate and graduate subjects taught at MIT.

  • OCW is not an MIT education.
  • OCW does not grant degrees or certificates.
  • OCW does not provide access to MIT faculty.
  • Materials may not reflect entire content of the course.

How do I register to use MIT OpenCourseWare?
There is no registration or enrollment process because OCW is not a credit-bearing or degree-granting initiative.

Can I get a certificate?
No. MIT OpenCourseWare is a publication of the course materials that support the dynamic classroom interactions of an MIT education; it is not a degree-granting or credit-bearing initiative. However, you should work through the materials at your own pace, and in whatever manner you desire.

How do I find what courses are available? How do I search your site?
A site overview is available for MIT OpenCourseWare. You can also browse courses by department or use the advanced search to locate a specific course or topic.

High school students and educators should check out Highlights for High School.

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response to a reader

A regular reader and commenter recently asked if the topic of a mudphudder’s PhD really matters toward the mudphudder’s residency and the long run in general. I apologize for the delayed response, but I’ve been getting slaughtered on the wards so I wanted to wait until I got some time off (now) to give you a thoughtful response.

Anyway, the short answer is, No. At least in my opinion. A lot of people assume that your field of research in graduate school does make a difference and there are even residency interviewers as well as more senior/important people who will argue with you that it does.
I am someone whose PhD topic did not obviously match with my residency field, without getting into too many specifics. There are also many mudphudders who do their PhDs in biochemistry, etc. So just because their chosen field of medicine doesn’t have to do with folded proteins, does that mean the PhD was a waste? Heck no. Let’s start with the very obvious fact that graduate school is meant to teach you how to become an independent investigator. That training is valuable to any field of medicine. As someone who has gone through graduate school–without quitting–you have demonstrated that you not only can survive but also thrive in the face of scientific/research adversity. Second, I would argue that you would be more of an asset to a field by bringing skills from a completely different background. Case in point, some of the best biologists I know have PhDs in physics. Some even were physics professors! Finally, you can always find a connection between things you learned in graduate school, if not your specific field of research, with what whatever field of medicine you want to go to.
In this regard, it’s really easy for mudphudders with translational research PhDs to apply into residences that are directly related to their research. However I sometimes wonder how many of these mudphudders actually go that route because it’s safe. Don’t get me wrong, most mudphudders I know seem to have a real love for what they’re doing but I really do wonder about that sometimes. I also wonder how many of these mudphudders didn’t let themselves explore other fields, just because their research matches so well with a field that they may have interest in.
Anyway, the short of it is that in my opinion, the topic of your phd research doesn’t make a huge difference on future career aspirations/ residency. The point of graduate school is to become a professional, independent researcher who can develop interesting questions and then answer them. If you can learn to do that, then your graduate school experience will be an asset to any field of medicine that you go into.

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nih grant codes – is k08 a grant or a type of submarine ?

How many times have you heard people talking about R01 grants or K22 grants and you’re like, “what the hell is he talking about?”  A lot for me.  Many years went by in medical and graduate school where I would hear people talking about these different NIH grants without any clue about what each grant was for.  Eventually I learned about some of them through just talking to people but then I recently discovered the internet and looked up this comprehensive table at the NIH website.  If you want to sound intelligent or be able to participate in conversations about the K02 independent scientist award, check out this site:

http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/ac_search_results.htm

Sooner or later if you stay in academia, you’re gonna have to get awfully familiar with these grants…

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an apt comparison

Where I spent four years of graduate school.

Where I spent four years of graduate school.

Not too long ago, someone happened onto the mudphudder blog by searching:

 

are med school and grad school the same

on ask.com. 

Are med school and grad school the same?  No.

Having been through both now, the best way I can put it is that medical school is like a four year jail sentence: you go in knowing you have to put in four years of hard time and along the way you take it up the ass occasionally.  Graduate school, on the other hand, is like solitary confinement: you’re wandering around in the dark, not knowing how much time has gone by or even what year it is, slowly losing your sanity until one day someone opens the door, you see the light and you’re out–smelly and a shell of your former self.  And you still have to take it up the ass occassionally.

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i’m almost back

Hi everyone. No I’m not dead and no I haven’t quit blogging. As many of you know, I recently got residency on city far away from where I went to medical school and I have been in the painful process of packing and moving over the last few weeks. I apologize for my lack of blogging in that time but I have just been getting crushed. Between hosting family for graduation, finishing up 3 manuscripts (which mind you are not done yet) and of course the obviously painful process of packing up, I just have not had the time. Plus I haven’t had real Internet access in over a week. In fact, I am writing this entry on my new iPhone (which is Sah-weeeeeet by the way).

Anyway, please hang with me for another few days when I can set up my high speed Internet and I’ll fill you in ok the pain that has been the last two weeks.

With much love to my loyal readers,

MP

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what do you think?

Someone wound up on my blog by searching google for:

do thesis advisors have big egos

What do you think, Buddy?  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! ;-)

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career choice impacts your academic viability

What is the most consistent measure of academic viability?  Scientific accomplishment?  Enlightenment of fellow man?  Bettering mankind?  Not really.  In my experience the most consistent measure of the viability of ones academic career is funding/money.  When big-name scientists lose their funding, they get the boot.  When the dude who has never really accomplished much somehow gets his hands on several million dollars of funding, he becomes the star.  I’ve seen it happen.  It doesn’t quite seem right but I don’t think universities care, in general. 

I was listening to a story about a division head who is effectively being terminated because of the loss of major funding (and the inability to get more funding) and I couldn’t help but shake my head in sad acceptance.  “Sad” because the situation is obviously sad!  Moreover, I know this person’s work and it is good–like New England Journal of Medicine good.  And, “acceptance” because that’s academics for you.  Better to know the ground rules going in than be surprised.  Nothing surprises me anymore. 

Nonetheless, because this is a fact of academics, it is important to consider the fact that your career choice will impact the viability of your academic career.  As time goes on, our careers all become more differentiated but there is always opportunity for adapting our work strategy. 

So what am I talking about?  From the perspective of pure researchers, it is pretty straight forward I think (but correct me if I’m wrong).  Either get grant funding or get the fuck out of here.  My feeling is that the best way to maintain viability through constant grant support (besides the obvious: do quality work, do lots of it, and know the right people) is to be in a field that maximizes the ratio of funding opportunities to competitors seeking those funds.  And that’s a tough balance to strike because “hotter” fields, with many investigators, tend to suck up most of the funding dollars.  You think the NIDDK gives away most of it’s grant monies for research of irritable bowel syndrome?  Actually, I don’t know–that could be the case, but to illustrate my point, my guess would be most NIDDK research dollars go towards diabetes.  The field I did my PhD research in was really hot and also really competitive and cut throat.  As much as I’m always screaming that “I WAS ROBBED” when I get shitty reviews back on my manuscripts, a few of my reviews really did read like that reviewer just wanted to suppress our work.  But, then again there was tons of grant money for that area of research. 

What about clinicians in academics?  Here’s where it gets a little more complicated.  Academic physicians tend to fall into one of three categories: physicians, physician-scientists and physician-educators.  The one common denominator for job security to all three categories is the amount of revenue that the clinical practice brings into the department.  This is obviously applicable to the pure clinician who does not undertake much research or teach.  However, it is also applicable to physician-scientists and physician-educators because at the very least, if the money generated through research or teaching activities falls through, there is always the clinical practice to depend on until, for example, the next grant comes in.  Therefore, there will always be more academic job security for someone whose clinical field of practice generates more revenue than a clinician who doesn’t.  It’s a sad fact.  I’ve seen some junior faculty who are forced to near 100% clinical work in order to support their salaries (essentially guaranteeing the end of the research career) in comparison to some other physicians who can cover their whole salaries (even without grants!) by working 3 days per week.  That’s a big difference.  Moreover, for pure clinicians the clinical revenue from a full week’s work will significantly impact not only salary level but also promotions as well.  I’ve noticed this to be particularly hard on the general internist who practices in an academic center.  Deferring all discussions on the importance of the general internist for now, it has become a fact that these guys are some of the most underpaid physicians in this country.  Couple that with work in an academic setting and you have a recipe for failure waiting to happen.  Especially when these guys are compared side-by-side (in terms of revenue production) with colleagues in, for example, surgery.  The fact is that physicians practicing less lucrative fields in academics have to do something else (research, teach, etc) and that something else better generate some revenue or at least acclaim.  At the end of the day, it seems to me that we are essentially renting our faculty posts from the university (e.g. through grants, services or revenues generated).  And, in order to do what you want in academics, it is important to have some idea of how you can strike the balance between career, research, etc that will allow you to pay the rent.

I’ll end by saying I don’t think that tailoring your career or career path to one of high academic viability (lots of money) is how anyone should approach it.  I think first and foremost you have to do what you love and what you are passionate about.  But in my opinion, it is important to keep the reality of academics in mind too.  Academics is hardly the ivory tower that people imagine it as.  It should be approached strategically, with all aspects–the good and the bad–in mind, so that you can maximize the odds of being able to do what you love in the academic setting.

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it’s all about the administrators

It’s amazing what a big role administrators can play in academics.  From the administrator in the graduate program office to the departmental administrator who puts in grant applications, administrators can make your life easy or extremely difficult. 

In my experience, I can tell you that the administrators in our MD/PhD office and my graduate program as well as thesis lab were key in making my life easy.  During the course of medical/graduate school, there are a lot of situations that can potentially come up where it is useful to have someone who will take care of things for you, e.g. deal with the registrar, dean’s office, budget office, etc.  As non-administrators, we don’t know many of the tricks that can, for example, cut the time it takes to get a hold of the right person at the registrar’s office from an hour to 5 minutes.  Who here has called an administrative office, like the registrar, and not received an answer?  Leave a message and we’ll get back to you–beeeeeeeeep.  Not cool when you need something taken care of in the next hour or even today.  In these situations, it’s nice to have someone who knows the right person to call as well as the right internal number that is sure to be answered (yes, these numbers exist).  Over time I’ve come to learn a few of these tricks but am not nearly as proficient as some administrators I know.  (as a sidenote, next time you get sent to an answering machine inside your university–administrative office or even within the hospital–try hitting the number zero; sometimes that will direct you to a phone that will be answered!!!)

The same can be said about the administrator of our graduate program who was extremely helpful when I was getting everything together to fulfill my requirements for graduation as well as our lab administrator who had my back throughout graduate school and took care of lots of little things that made my life much easier.  In contrast I have heard horror stories about administrators in other programs who not only don’t do their work but actually make life harder (e.g. losing things, not filing things).  One person I know almost didn’t get to graduate from graduate school because the program administrator kept losing the requisite forms that needed and were filled out by the student.  That’s ridiculous!!!!  Another person didn’t get reimbursed for conference expenses for over a year.  Can you really afford to shell out over $1000 for a conference and not get reimbursed for over a year? 

I wish I could say that this nonsense stopped at graduate school but it never does.  A junior faculty member I know turned in a grant application two weeks before the university deadline only to find out that his administrator sat on it and forgot to turn it in.  When he asked her about it, she sent him to five different offices around the university looking for his grant application when he finally realized that it had not gone anywhere to begin with.  Are you serious about that?!?!?!!?  This was for a junior faculty member whose career depends on grants.  Unbelievable.

I guess my point is that administrators are an often overlooked part of our evaluation of new places we go for work.  Having more experience with an MD/PhD program, graduate school program and joining a lab, I can definitely attest to how important a good administrator can be during those times.  So, if you are going to be interviewing for an MD/PhD program, graduate school program or even for joining a lab, make sure you ask other students how good and supportive the administrators are.  It’ll be obvious from peoples’ reactions just how good or helpful the administrators are.  Just remember, these administrators are the people who are supposed to be helping you (at least, not hurting you) for a sizeable period during a critical point in your training.  It’s definitely something to consider.

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academicians are pussies

Here is a comment that was recently left on this blog:

You’re a total pussy and judging by the comments above, that’s the norm in academia.

There is no justice in the world and there are no other lives where people get their karmic reward. You need to have the courage to tell people where to get off here and now, that’s the only way to beat the a-holes.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!  Sounds like someone who (1) isn’t in academics and (2) wasn’t loved enough as a child. 

But, it raises an important issue related to academics–how far do you take a fight?  Do you walk away, take a stand or take the fight to others?  It depends.  There are times when you will have to take it up the ass because the alternate would come at too great a cost.  But there are also times when it is completely appropriate and worth it to follow this commenter’s philosophy. 

However, “You need to have the courage to tell people where to get off here and now, that’s the only way to beat the a-holes” is the fastest way to get kicked out of academics in my experience, which is why I am writing this post.  In my opinion, the hardest thing you will have to do in academics is when at some point you will have to hold back on the urge to tell an asshole where to get off.  One of the barriers to always speaking your mind is the fact that your career (especially early on–but really until you become a departmental chair it seems) is controlled by a small group of people who all know each, were med or grad school buddies, talk to each other and hire based on each others recommendations.  Which is why pissing off the wrong person can totally destroy a career.  Moreover, someone is always trying to stick it to you in academics.  Papers, authorship, reagents, call schedule, etc.  Sometimes you gotta take one.  It’s called being a “team player”–a buzz word in medicine, for sure.  Even a reputation as someone who is not a team player can hurt. 

My point is that I’ve known a number of people who have adopted the general approach of “You need to have the courage to tell people where to get off here and now, that’s the only way to beat the a-holes“.  They have either been kicked out of or nearly kicked out of medical school, graduate school, residency and fellowship.  None remain in academics.  Which is why my empiric evidence suggests to me that you gotta be careful when it comes to getting into major conflicts.  You can be as courageous as you want to be but if it costs you your academic career or even an extra year or two in training, will it be worth it then?  Everyone I know who has gone through this would say that it wasn’t worth it. I agree that sometimes it is worth it to throw down.  I’ve had to a number of times as well and while it wasn’t pretty, it was the right move to make at that point.  But those occasions were few and far between.  More often than not, I and everyone else I know have had to take it.

Some people may call that being a pussy.  I call it being careful, calculating and deliberate.   I also think telling off every asshole that gets in your way is a poor career move and usually makes you appear to be an asshole as well.  Finally, I would be wary of anyone who suggests this as a general approach to life in academics.  This is not meant as an offense to the commenter but is simply based on the outcomes I’ve seen. 

So what to do?  As I’ve tried to relay before, I think the key is to first and foremost avoid such situations if possible, which is why I’ve been writing about my experiences in order to give suggestions for how to do so.  Second, I think you always have to be calculating and deliberate in what actions you do take.  If you decide to fight, then make sure it’s worth it.  If it’s not worth it, then walk away.  In either case, you can’t take a general willy-nilly approach to every circumstance. 

I’ve put out my experience on this but if readers from any stage in academia want to share their thoughts, experiences, or suggestions in the comments, I’d love to hear them since I think this issue of when and how far to take a fight is an important one for an academic career.

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i changed my mind–gimme gimme gimme

One of my favorite things about academics is dealing with people who feel entitled to anything they want (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m being sarcastic). Not too long ago I wrote an entry about a research associate who had given up on a project because she couldn’t/wouldn’t take it any further so the PI of the project, who is a friend of mine, asked me to pick it up, since the project was headed down a path related to one of my specialties.

So I’ve been working on moving this project forward over the course of the last few months when I hear from my friend that this research associate has decided that she wants to take over the project again and, in fact, has been calling me useless behind my back to my friend the PI. So we set up a meeting for the three of us, and this research associate told me that she didn’t need me and that I was dead weight.

Let me stop right there. I, in general, don’t feel a great deal of entitlement. I don’t want or need anyone to be nice to me. BUT, I draw the line at total and complete disrespect from someone who has no lab experience and whose mess I’ve had to clean up for the last few months. Especially in front of the PI.

However, the PI in this case is someone whom I consider a close friend and someone I didn’t want to put in a bad situation, so I just sort of parried the accusations with a smile and soon excused myself for a meeting (related to this project, no less). Long story short: I have now dropped this project, four months of time and work further, back into the lap of this research associate, which really pisses me off because this was a sweet little project. But for the sake of not dragging out a protracted battle with someone in my friend’s lab, I gave it up. Just wasn’t worth it.

So what’s the lesson to be learned? I like to extract a learning point out of every shitty experience I have. In retrospect, I think there are several lessons that I’m taking away: (1) A good friend whom you can trust in academia is hard to come by and worth taking one up the ass for. I think with the experiences in academia that I have had and written about as well as your own, it should be pretty clear how important it is to have someone in your corner. If you have a friend in academics that you can trust, then do what you can to help them out when you are in a position to do so. Especially if you are in the sole position to do so. In this situation, what was I going to do—wait for the jerk to back off? Help your friends. Enough said. (2) This might sound bad but I think experiences like this (which are common) motivate self-protective strategies: when in a collaboration, it may be prudent to keep some element of secrecy until the very end when it’s time for everyone to put their cards on the table in order to maintain indispensability. In this case I was working with a friend so as I set things up (work, collaborations, direction), I was completely open about it. But I got bit on the ass by this other person. I suspect that if she didn’t know of the progress and didn’t have all of the information, she wouldn’t be as aggressive about snatching the responsibility for this project away. I don’t endorse this kind of approach with trusted friends and colleagues, with whom I think you have to be open, but the last few negative experiences I’ve had have convinced me of the “general” necessity to protect ones time investment from usurpers. And finally, (3) I’m gonna bank on karma and say that sometimes you just have to let assholes take the lead and shoot themselves in the foot. I’m sort of in a weird situation with this one because I won’t let my friend’s project get screwed over if I can help, so I’ll always be there if needed. But if that isn’t a confounding issue, I think when you are faced with arrogant ignoramuses who spew nonsense, sometimes it’s best to let them go ahead with their “brilliant” ideas. And while I wouldn’t necessarily count on cosmic justice—since I know a lot of morons who have succeeded by cheating others—at least it’s nice to know that it might be a possibility, however many lifetimes from now it may be.

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give it up

I’ve written before about authorship issues that I have experienced.  Getting papers snatched away or just plain and simple not being given any credit (where credit is due) can be painful but it is also a common thing.  Another issue I’ve alluded to is a situation when you have to recuse your authorship because you don’t agree with the work or the interpretations.  I’ve now had to do this twice.  I won’t get into the specifics of the situations (some which have already been described in previous posts) but while it hurt me both times to give up authorship (hey, I’m young and every paper counts here!), I don’t regret it. 

A similar situation recently happened to a friend of mine and he had to recuse himself from what would have been a nice publication on his CV.  Unfortunately, the people to whom this kind of scenario happens are often lower on the totem pole and therefore the people who would have most benefitted from the publication. 

We are recruited to participate in research project and we contribute valuable time and energy with an understanding of the goals/objectives that are being sought.  But what do you do if your results are interpreted in such a way that goes against both what you have previously published (thus making you look bad in print) and what you actually believe to be the truth?  None of us are ever recruited into a study knowing that this is going to happen or that the person with whom you are collaborating is going to pull a 180 so what are the options?  One possibility is proposing to do additional work (e.g. experiments) that would flush out whether one theory is more valid than the other.  Presumably, the fact that you are a collaborator indicates that your opinion is respected and therefore worthy of flushing out.  But that is not always the case.  Another option is trying to word the interpretation in a more objective fashion that reflects precisely what the results have shown, thus leaving open the possibility that both interpretations are possible.  Again, this depends on the fact that your opinion would be respected since you have supplied an necessary (and sometimes critical) part of the story.  And again, it is not always the case that your opinion is respected–just that your contribution is needed. 

My friend was needed to provide a service that only he could do.  He performed it and then was slapped in the face.  He didn’t know it was coming and tried working with his co-authors but ultimately gave up the fight and simply asked for removal from the authorship.  Instead he is now acknowledged.  And, better yet, his contribution is actually listed under someone else’s name in the “author’s contribution” section!  You gotta wonder what keeps people in academics sometimes.

The main issue with this is that neither I nor my friend nor young academics out there have the time to waste on a project that we will have recuse ourselves from because of dogmatic beliefs of a more senior collaborator.  However, we have to weigh this against the fact that collaborations are a necessary part of furthering our careers and they can even be really productive when it is a supportive relationship built on openness, communication and mutual respect.  (I better not getting any “dating help” hits from google).  So here are my suggestions, ask as many questions as you can think of to uncover any possible underlying agenda (philosophical, dogmatic, etc) when you are asked to collaborate on a project.  It is better to get it all out in the open than to spend your time on something that you ultimately won’t get anything out of anyway.  Moreover, it is a lot harder for people to go back on issues that have been discussed beforehand in contrast to issues that have never been broached.  Finally, if all else fails, you have to recuse yourself.  I write this mostly for the younger readers: it is NEVER worth it to put your name on something you don’t believe, regardless of where it’ll be published.  I’ve seen it ruin too many people.  And at the end of day, your scientific integrity is the only true and consistent predictor of the quality of your work.  Once you besmirch that, it’s all over–in both your own and others’ eyes.  I know it can be painful to give up publications and have to live with the fact that you contributed to a study that you don’t agree with but that is better than having to accept responsibility for that work (which is what authorship means, right?).  Moreover, look at each one of these instances as a learning experience that will inform you on finding productive collaborative relationships in the future.

And hopefully, my, my friend’s and other’s experiences will help prevent similar experiences for others in the future by offering some insight into how to approach collaborations as well as these situations when they arise.

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does this sound kosher to you?

So I officially got screwed out of a publication today.  Many months ago I was approached by some people–friends and colleagues–about doing some work for a paper, which I eventually did over the winter holidays during my down time.  A couple of weeks ago they told me that someone else who works with one of their collaborators had done the same work I was asked to do but came up with a different result.  When they told me how the results differed, I realized this other person had made a mistake and told them why/how the mistake was made but that I couldn’t continue doing this work having to look over my shoulder and/or figure out mistakes made by this much less experienced person.  A couple weeks later now, I find out that these people–friends and colleagues–have decided to use the work by their collaborator’s person rather than my work. 

As a gesture, I was offered authorship on this paper although I have no idea how this other person did the work and my experience now is that this person’s work is suspect (with rookie mistakes).  So I turned down the authorship.  What choice did I have?  I can’t accept responsibility for work that I have no knowledge of and moreover think is suspect. 

I have mixed feelings right now.  The people who approached me and asked me to do this work are friends.  I don’t think they would purposefully ask someone else to also do the work.  At least I hope I wouldn’t get played like that.  I suspect they just got trapped in a situation with their collaborator.  But at the same time, I put in a lot of time to do this work–over my winter break no less–and I was rewarded with second-guessing and effectively a slap in the face.  It seems a little unprofessional to commit to me for this work and then burn me.  But again, these are people I’ve known for years and I have long considered them as friends so I don’t want to judge. 

What do you think?

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to my regular readers

Sorry–it’s been a slow week for new content on mudphudder’s blog.  This has been a really busy week and I’m halfway home now.  I’ll write put some new material up this weekend and ask that you bare with me for the next two days.  It should be smooth sailing from there on out.

For now, if you haven’t already done so, please check out Praxis #6 Blog Carnival (my previous entry).

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Praxis No. 6

I received very few submissions for this edition of the Praxis blog carnival.  Actually, I don’t want to sugar coat it by saying there were “very few”…there was actually only one post submission by Dr. Shock. Another reader submitted his entire blog URL, but that doesn’t really count because blog carnivals are collections of individual posts (regardless, I went to his site to find an article, and one of his posts appears below).  The whole experience was sad, actually.  I contacted Martin (at The Lay Scientist), who started Praxis, to tell him about the dearth of article submissions.  He assured me that this happens often with new blog carnivals, and the best thing that I could do to keep Praxis going was to hunt down a few articles myself.  It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I decided to host, but you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes, right? 

The theme for my edition was inspired by the chorus of the song, “Ooh La La,” by The Faces and Rod Stewart.  If you’re not familiar with the song, the chorus lyrics are: “I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger. /  I wish that I knew what I know now /  When I was stronger.”  So, on my hunt for articles, I looked for posts that would actually teach a graduate student, young scientist or academic a few things that they may not know at this specific time in their lives or careers.

Dr. Shock - You can learn something new everyday on this blog…but how about one thing that I wish I knew when I was younger?  Maybe just how freakin’ good chocolate is for your health!  I would have ate so much more.  Anyone have any Chunky bars?

A Blog Around The Clock – A post about the interplay of politics, money and the power of the people.  It’s called, “Who Has Power?”  Now, tell me you didn’t wish you knew the answer to that when you were younger (and when you were stronger).  

Incoherent Mimicry – Mi teaches us that we should let loose every once in awhile.  She shares some interesting studies that show having a healthy social life may actually be beneficial to our health.  Perhaps this post will inspire some people to put their work aside on a Friday or Saturday night to spend some time with friends.

Comrade PhysioProf – A short post reminding us not to believe everything we read or hear in the media…more specifically, that any analogy between newspapers and universities in their quest for facts and truth is…well…how should I put it?  F-ing ridiculous. 

The Mad Scientist – I would bet most scientists would learn more from this post than from a whole month’s worth of Nature journals.  This medical student blogger says she wishes she knew how to dance when she was 15.  Now that she’s older (24…she’s really getting up there), she’s sharing with us just exactly how to bust a move on the dance floor.  I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this one…I mean, how many scientists do you know who don’t look like complete tools on the dance floor (if they even get out on the dance floor)?

Leeat Granek, Ph.D. – A touching article about the true meaning of love by Dr. Granek at The Huffington Post entitled, “Everything I Know About Love I Learned From My Parents.”  A beautiful lesson in love that you’re never too old to learn.

Acadamnit - Gives prospective grad students (or one in particular) a few pointers on applying to graduate programs.

Medaholic – (For the medical students out there) Shows us that “Studying Can Be Fun”–what?  Did I read that right?  

Lastly, Dan at DailyMeds has a list of important things to take the time to do this year.  I say it’s not just a list, but timeless advice–words of wisdom–for the young and the old. 

Next edition of Praxis will be up at the home of its founder at The Lay Scientist on March 15.

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what determines authorship

What determines authorship on a scientific journal article?  Who knows?  After a PhD and 4 years in medical school, I apparenty don’t know.  A friend of mine who is a graduate student was recently approached about including someone on his paper as an author–if that person had done anything at all remotely contributing to the paper.  This was asked as a favor to the person who was to be added as an author.  My buddy was pretty steamed about it.  Understandably so, too.  You give your life, your heart and soul to a project then finish it and are asked to list some random person as an author because it would be nice for that person.  Are you kidding me???  

There is an amazing difference between what qualifies as an authorship-level contribution across institutions, labs/PIs and even students.  I was talking to another buddy of mine about this over the past weekend.  We both know a few people (at all levels: graduate student, post-doc, faculty) who have a mad crazy number of publications on their C.V.s by having an “in” with the right people.  An “in” referring to sub-significant level work leading to authorship.  I hate that shit.  I hate that shit because it didn’t happen to me.  Sour grapes.  We know graduate students who have gotten several first author papers like this even though others have done significantly more work than them (they know who they are).  Even worse, in the last 6 years I have heard some considerably more egregious requests for authorship (which I will list some other time for fun).  Why doesn’t anyone make ridiculous requests for me to be included as an author on papers I did no work on?

There have been a number of published “consensus” statements on what comprises authorship-level work including the description listed on page 2 of http://www.icmje.org/icmje.pdf.  But the only consensus in my opinion is that if everyone followed these guidelines, then most papers would probably have 3 authors tops.  I, in the past, have advocated including others (who may not meet such high standards of work contribution) on papers in order to foster collaboration and cementing scientific relationships.  

However, I wholeheartedly disagree with what happened to my buddy.  So I’m not sure how to reconcile this feeling with my previously expressed opinions.  I think the main point may be that it sucks to be told by someone who has been barely involved in your work to include a person, who doesn’t deserve it, as an author.  Because, at the end of the day when I have included technically unqualified authors (usually younger graduate students), others who contributed significantly on that paper had to deal with my decision.  So I guess I’m getting to a much deeper level (of bullshit?), that only those who have given the most love to the project have the moral authority to pull B.S. like adding unqualified authors.  Something about that sounds like a lot of bullshit to me but I’m sticking with it for now.  I will, however, hand it my buddy who has always been consistent in his belief that only those who have contributed significantly to a paper should be included as an author.  

So there you have it.  You can either look at it as black and white like my buddy, or you can look at it as black and white with many shades of bullshit in between, like the mudphudder.

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Praxis No. 6: a call for posts

So, I will be hosting Praxis No. 6, which will go up next Sunday, February 15.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Praxis Blog Carnival is about the academic life.  Topics in the past have ranged from basic advice on studies and careers to life lessons on the academic path. 

Since I am hosting this edition, it turns out that I get to pick the theme.  As someone who’s made it through a few (I should say very few) stages on the way to a career in academics, I feel some duty to share my experiences so that others may gain some insight from my mistakes and occasional good judgment. 

While I can only pass down my experiences to graduate students and medical students, I think that people at all stages in academia (no matter how advanced) could benefit from hearing about what others have gone through–lessons that wouldn’t have otherwise been totally obvious. 

Therefore, my theme for Praxis No. 6 is the chorus of the song “Ooh La La” by Rod Stewart:

“I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.”

That is one good song!  Use it as inspiration in any way to write about life in academia.  All are welcome to submit but please submit your entries by Friday, February 13 to me at mudphudder@gmail.com (please include “Praxis” in the email title so I know what it is for).  It would be great if you would stick to the theme, but I will include posts on other topics as well.

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you think you’ve got it bad?!?!?

Just when you (or I) think it couldn’t possibly get any worse, you hear a story about someone who has it even worse. I read this post on another blog by the YoungFemaleScientist that made me very grateful for my graduate school experience. In the post, she describes some of the hardship she faced during graduate school (in particular that her PI ran out of money and couldn’t support her), how she dealt with it and eventually got her PhD. Additionally, she describes some of the challenges she is facing as a post-doc now. Whether you are having/anticipating any problems or not, I would recommend reading this post just to get an idea of what can happen and how someone can survive it.   While you’re there, please give the YoungFemaleScientist some love, as it sounds like she may be going through some hard times.

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choosing oral board exam committee members

In some–if not many–graduate programs, you have no say over who is on your oral board (a.k.a. qualifier) committee.  Some graduate school programs don’t even tell you who is on your committee until you walk into the room on the day of your exam.  Painful. 

But if you have the option to choose who is on your committee, plain and simple pick the people who will take it the easiest on you.  Sounds so obvious, right?  From my perspective, the oral board exam maybe very sensitive in picking out the flunkies who couldn’t possibly make it through graduate school but the oral boards are unfortunately not very specific.  That is, I know an unexpectedly high number of smart graduate students who did not unconditionally pass on their first time–usually because they made the wrong choices for committee members or because they were so dedicated to their research that they blew off studying for the board exam.  The oral boards are hard; you can be asked about pretty much anything the committee members feel like asking–so why not make it as easy as possible for yourself?  I knew one guy who wanted to make it “challenging,” so that he would feel like he really “earned it.”  That was probably one of stupidest things I’ve ever heard.  If you’re the kind of person who wants a challenge, then you are probably not the kind of person that the oral board exam is meant to weed out.  So get grip, pick easy committee members and go back to your research.  What is more likely to happen is that your advisor will suggest someone who is not easy, or even worse, has a reputation for being a hard ass.  I was talking to a friend of mine recently, and she finds herself in this situation.  If you find yourself in this situation, do and say anything that you have to convince your advisor otherwise.  And if it comes down to it, forget convincing, just tell your advisor that you’ve chosen Professor So-and-So instead.  Choosing hard ass oral board exam committee members is like having one strike against you before you even go to the plate.  Why would you do that to yourself? 

Some obvious ways to recognize good committee members:

  • Track record for asking easy questions (talk to older graduate students)
  • Does NOT have a track record of busting balls (as important as asking the easy questions)
  • Likes you/has had good interactions with you
  • Likes your boss
  • Is NOT on bad terms with either you or your boss (people: I can’t stress this enough–if someone is pissed off at your advisor, they WILL take it out on you)

What I sincerely hope doesn’t happen is for people to send comments taking the moral high ground about how it builds character to have a difficult oral board exam.  That’s ridiculous.  The oral board exam is meant to weed out flunkies.  For the rest of you who work hard, just get through it and go back to your research.  That’s it.  To appease the moral authority, I will say that studying for my oral board exam was actually a great experience, though painful.  There will actually be no other time in your research careers where you can take a month off and study/reinforce all of the principles of science, biology, whatever that you are supposed to know.  It’s amazing and I urge all of you to take advantage of that month.  BUT, do not make the actual exam harder on you than it has to be.  Find any means possible to weasel out of making it harder than it has to be.  Spend your time worrying about your research, not obscure facts about a biochemical pathway that you will remember until exactly 30 seconds after your exam is over.

In our graduate program, every year one person would receive a conditional pass, which meant that the person did not actually pass but had to do some kind of remediation.  Basically, that person’s ass was at the mercy of the committee chair-person.  (Last I checked, it had been a good 6 or 7 years since someone failed outright and was kicked out of graduate school).  Anyway, forget about make-ups, you DO NOT want to be that guy–the remedial graduate student.  You know, the one who has to explain to all of his classmates why he didn’t exactly pass but will pass after doing the thing for the guy who wants him to read the twelve original articles on the experiment that showed that thing and then present a report to the other guy who… Blah blah blah, by then I’ve already pinned you as the class dunce.  Don’t be that guy.  If you make educated decisions about your committee and this still happens to you, then it sucks to be you but there was nothing else that could have been done–and yes, I have seen it happen.  But, if you pick hard committee members and this happens to you, don’t say that the Mudphudder didn’t give ample warning.  I’ve seen many a good graduate student go under the train just by making poor choices for oral board committee members–don’t be one of them.

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response to a reader

A reader left the following comment on a recent post on intellectual property rights as a grad student:

Hey Mudphudder,

I was wondering if you have any opinions on intellectual property, specifically from the vantage point of a graduate student…
When I started with my department, one of the orientation meetings emphasized the university’s controlling stake in EVERYTHING that may be produced or derived from peon graduate students during their tenure. That’s all fine and good (the uni gets a big cut compared to the PI), but they neglected to discuss whether there are any baseline expectations that grad students can count on if their work is patented, etc. One project that I’ve been developing with my PI for two years (mouse breedings/homemade protein production/vaccinations) may have finally generated a novel gene product that would be utilized by my PI in a clinial trial. Given that he already has a few previous patents, I’m guessing that he would move to patent this discovery as well. If we are indeed so lucky, I would hope to be included as a partial owner/stakeholder. Really, though, I have no idea what to expect. Given all the leg-work, troubleshooting, and hundreds of hours contributed from my end (with zero contriubtions from other grad students, post-docs, or technicians), it would be hard to see this whisked away from me. Your entry on work-sharing vs. author-sharing was funny, but it left me wondering – do graduate students have rights beyond the good graces of their PI? Are there academic or, dare I say, legal precedents for conflicts over ownership? My worst fear is that the academic hierarchy has jurisdiction to crush those on the bottom rung….
(Does this qualify as the record longest post on your blog?)

There are sleazeballs in academics who steal from others because they can’t think of good ideas or do good work themselves.  If it happens to you, it sucks.  There is always recourse–the question is whether you want to take it or not.  When someone on your level or more junior does it to you, it is a lot easier to take action.  But when your beef is with someone who is higher on the totem pole than you are, it’s not so easy.  With that said, let’s get to your situation. More »

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homage to producers

"He's a producer"

"He's a producer"

You know me.  I can see you eyeing me as the P.I. gives me a tour of the lab.  The P.I.?  Yeah–that’s the individual slobbering at the thought of my joining the lab.  That’s right…you know who I am.  I’m a producer.  I don’t talk much–I let my work ethic do the talking–but when I do talk, true I often speak with an accent.  I often take the shape of an international graduate student or post-doc but in truth I am a machine–made of twisted steel–sent back in time to rock your lab’s world.  Don’t confuse me with my twin: the one-year-post-doc, who works as hard as I do, except towards getting a visa/green card/U.S. citizenship rather than lab work.   

I sweat, eat, and breathe lab work.  I’ve already finished 2 experiments by the time you stumble in at 11:00 in ”the morning” with your Starbucks mocha frappacino in-hand, and I’m still here when you leave for the evening.  Lunch?!?!?  What’s lunch?  I’m even here when you come running back in the middle of the night because you left your PCR plate sitting out.  Yes, I am the new standard in working hard around here.  Remember how you could put off an experiment that your advisor asked about for a week or two because everyone else did the same?  Those days are over.  That’s not going to fly anymore Because I have those experiments done before you can even find your lab notebook under that pile of papers, catalogues, exposed films, reagents and half-eaten pack of powdered donuts on your desk.   

But despite the fact that I make you look bad, you do love me.  Yes, deep down you do.  I’m a nice guy.  I always have a smile on my face, and there’s really nothing bad about me.  See?!?!!  You can’t make an argument against that.  And really, I don’t actively try to make you look bad.  I really don’t!  I work hard.  You, on the other hand, work occasionally.  You see: we just disagree on that one point and that’s not too bad.  At least you have another person who knows nothing about college basketball for the lab NCAA March Madness pool: I pick the University of Alabama at Huntsville to win it all–the “Chargers”–they sound like winners. 

So, brush the dust off your lab bench and pipetmen, put a smile on your face and get back to work–I mean real work, not just holding a Pipetman in your hand while talking to the person in the bay across from you.  That’s right–there’s a new sheriff in town.  I’m a producer.

*     *     *     *     *

Everyone who’s spent some time in the lab knows what I’m talking about: the producer.  I ask my buddies in the lab about new people who’ve joined since I’ve left, and when I hear, “he’s a producer,” that’s all that needs to be said.  I wish I had been a producer during graduate school.  Instead, I was the guy with a pack of half-eaten powdered donuts on my desk in the lab.  So sad…

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response to a reader

A reader and fellow mudphudder left this comment on my recent post on when I was dis’ed by a PI back when I was looking for a PhD lab:

So I read your latest post about getting snubbed by a PI (my worst nightmare.) I’m in the process of shopping for a rotation this summer. I’m an M2 now. I did one rotation prior to MS1 and one between MS1 and MS2. The first PI is bananas, the second one retired unexpectedly. So I gotta make the next one count. I have a few viable options. They all have R01’s so I’m not too worried about funding. One is doing research on the olfactory bulb, and since I plan to apply to ENT, this feels like a good option for me. However, this person has a teeny-tiny lab and publishes in middle-of-the-road journals. The main reason I am considering working there is because it’s ENT-related. Since my school has a small ENT department with no residency program, I feel like my app needs a shot in the arm that this could provide. I think I would be happy there also. Another guy is doing research that I think is absolutely incredible. I think about it and read about it just for yahoos. His publishing record hasn’t been great but he claims to have 3 manuscripts in the works. There are two other labs I am also interested in (sorry this is getting long but I have almost zero mentoring in my program). One is a small lab with an amazing PI that I get along really well with and I think would be a really good mentor. The research, however, isn’t particularly exciting to me, but perhaps that could change (?) Another lab is run by a well-know PI (in his field) using fancy-pants techniques that said he could get me out in 3 years unless I “really stunk.” Again, research topic is just “eh” to me. Any advice at all is appreciated! Also, not sure what you’re applying to, but since I’m interested in surgical subspecialties (namely ENT), I’m wondering if my research topic will matter at all to programs. No one has matched into ENT from my school in 15 years and the department is excited that I’m interested but kind of out of the loop about match stuff. Thanks so much for reading this beast of a message.

I feel for your situation.  I knew another mudphudder who had a bad first lab rotation, the PI of his second rotation was world famous and then retired during this guy’s rotation.  This mudphudder finally found a third lab to do a rotation in and where he was very happy.  Moreover, the PI told him that he wasn’t retiring, moving, etc–i.e. that nothing was going to change.  So this mudphudder joined the lab and six months later this mudphudder found out from a third party that his PI was moving to another university on the other side of the country.  After all he had been through, this mudphudder ultimately ended up moving a few months into his PhD–spent the next few months doing nothing while his lab got settled at this new university and ultimately has ended up on the 9, maybe 10 year track.   Which brings me to point #1: Don’t completely believe anything a PI tells you.  Sorry–no offense to the PIs reading this post.  But the bottom line is that if a PI has the opportunity to do something beneficial for his/her career, it will get done regardless of a graduate student’s or postdoc’s inconvenience.  You know, education and all.  Such an inconvenience!  No one can reasonably argue the counter-argument.  I make this point to get you thinking about the PI who told you that you would graduate in 3 years unless you “really stunk.”   Let’s ignore for now the pathologic implications of the ”really stunk” part.  Will that PI give you the 3 year deal in writing?  Of course not.  That PI may have a track record for putting out graduate students in 3 years, which makes it more likely that it will happen to you, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen to you either.  If it’s not in writing, it’s not guaranteed.  Especially if you are a student who has no recourse against a mightier PI. 

Okay, now moving on to the subject of your PhD.  First of all, ENT is a competitive residency to get, so I can understand the fact that you are taking that into consideration.  But, in my opinion, the point of a PhD is to learn how to become a good researcher who can independently generate scientific questions and then figure out how to solve them in a systematic, organized way.  Which brings me to point #2: For the purposes of your future in academia, I would argue that the subject of your PhD will make very very little impact.  Many people I know who finished a PhD and then went on to a postdoc and later a faculty job did not follow in the steps of their graduate work.  In fact, I think people who do their training in a completely different field and then take those skills to their ultimate career field have the potential to make much more impact.  You may be thinking that doing an ENT-related PhD will help your chances for getting into an ENT residency.  I don’t know if that is completely true.  I think it probably helps a little but I don’t think that the pros significantly outweigh the cons, so I would put this consideration way down on your list of factors to consider.  As a mudphudder you will be competitive regardless.  If you are additionally motivated, you should take advantage of knowing what you want to do and do some little ENT-related clinical studies on the side during graduate school.  Just make it clear that you are doing those projects in order to learn more about the field and that you will be doing the work on the side (i.e. your thesis work takes precedence during graduate school).  But, if you stick with it, I bet you’ll land 3 or 4 ENT papers on top of your graduate school work just by doing that.  Heck–I started doing clinical research on the side after I returned to wards (I’m talking during my surgery clerkship for example) and I’ll end up with a solid 5 clinical papers–4 first author out of it.  So consider that possibility as well.

Point #3: In my opinion, you gotta be passionate about your graduate school research.  That’s the only thing that got me through some dark times when nothing was working and it felt like no one on earth cared about my project except for me.  I used to think about my work all the time–at the gym, watching T.V., etc.  I really loved thinking about that problem, and I believed in the importance of it.  In hindsight, if I hadn’t believed in what I was working on, it would have been really, really, really hard to put up with some of the stuff I put up with during graduate school.  I’ve known people who pick labs just because of the lab and not necessarily the research.  I think that’s a reasonable way of making your decision as well.  But all of those people either ended up hitting it big or being really, really, really depressed.  Think about it–if your project works out in a big-time lab then you’re the bomb.  But if your project doesn’t work out in such a huge lab, you are likely to be forgotten, left behind and then you are stuck trying to work really, really hard on a project you feel “eh” on.  The ideal would be if you can find a project in that super awesome lab that you are passionate about.  (But always work on a project that your PI cares about–I wrote all about this before).  Related to this, publication record is also a good metric to look at when evaluating possible thesis labs.  If the lab published 1 paper per year and the first author of that paper is always a postdoc, then that may not be a very graduate student-friendly environment.  I think as long as the PI is publishing good quality work frequently that is authored by graduate students, then that’s great.  Of course Science papers may be better than Journal of Neuroscience papers, but it’s for you to decide how high to rank that factor in your decision making process. 

To get back to finding lab rotations, I would not rule out doing a fourth rotation.  Try talking to your graduate program director or MD/PhD program director about doing 2 shorter lab rotations if you want to explore two more labs.  The point of a lab rotation is more to get a feel for the lab, the people and the work environment than to get substantial lab work done.  You can argue that those objectives can be met in a shorter (e.g. 8wks, maybe 6wks if you want to push it) period of time.  It is better to have some choices at the end of the day than it is to pick one lab and feel like you have to join it regardless of how the rotation works out.   Also, always confirm beforehand that the PIs would have space for you to join the lab if you wanted to at the end of all of your rotations.  That will save you a wasted rotation, but I make no guarantees…

This was a long post but this is an important process and decision–something that you will have to live with for the next 4-5 years (on average) of your life.  I’ve made a some mistakes and some good (at least from my perspective) decisions along the way and have watched others do the same.  I tried to draw from these experiences and I hope that at least some of this helps you.

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a shot of humility never hurt anyone

I was reminded of a funny story today.  One piece of advice that was passed on to me and that I pass on to younger students is that when you are looking to engage a P.I. about doing a rotation in their lab, specifically indicate that you would like to meet with them ONLY IF they have a space open in the lab for a rotating student during your desired time period.  I have known a lot of students–mostly for purposes of graduate school lab rotations–who have not specified this and then end up wasting an hour of their time.  I, on the other hand, have always specified this space requirement in my emails to P.I.s and this strategy has saved me a lot of time.  Except for once.

mudphudder got smacked down

mudphudder got smacked down

It was during first year of medical school and I was trying to line up a lab rotation for during the summer (for those who aren’t familiar: most mudphudders do graduate school lab rotations during the summer between first and second year of medical school to save some time).  It was probably a little late to be just starting to look into labs–ahem… it was definitely a little late.  But to be honest, at our institution mudphudders are sought by P.I.s–whether right or wrong–and I was definitely taking that to heart in my nonchalance.  (I was young… What can I say?)  So any way, after lectures and lab one afternoon, I went to see a P.I. who had indicated in his email to me that there was space in his lab for a graduate student rotation over that summer.  A little background–this guy is very well known at our institution and a member of some very prestigious organizations; also a bit wierd but that could be my lingering resentment–you’ll see.  So I went to talk to him and we talked for an hour.  I indicated that my research background from experiences in college was not in his area of research but that I was willing to work hard and learn.  And after an hour of conversation, he looked at me and said: “Yeeeaahh, I don’t think we room in the lab this summer for another student.  But maybe next summer.”

I think there was like a three second silence where I just sat there staring at him.  In my head: HE TOLD ME THERE WAS SPACE IN HIS EMAIL.  Now of course, there were several possibilities: 1) he made a mistake in his email; 2) there was space but one of his major grants fell through and he could no longer support a graduate student for the summer; or 3) mudphudder just got REJECTED.  So obviously, mudphudder definitely got rejected. 

That was cold.  Freezing even.  And I was ticked.  Of course I knew what had happened and of course he knew that I knew what had happened.  Well, I politely thanked him for his time and even sent a nice “thank you” email when I got home that night.  Later that summer I talked to a technician working in that P.I.’s lab who indicated that they were indeed looking for graduate students as there was definitely room.  This person also wanted to know why I asked…  Cold.  Just cold.

Seven years later, I’m still not completely over it.  I mean, how do you NOT take that personally?  Right?  Of course, these days, I mostly laugh my head off thinking about it–but still…

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season of giving comes to a close

I will officially wrap up my holiday season today with the last installment in my “season of giving” posts.  And what better gift to give an authority figure and clinical role model than your innocence.  Yes!  Give it up!  Now, while what I refer to may be derisively called by some (such as ME), “getting my idea ripped off by faculty member who I went to for help in developing it,” others (such as the faculty member who ripped off my idea) would call it “giving a special piece of yourself to someone you look up to.”

So I used to believe in the complete purity and goodness of those in academia–the ivory tower: scholars, I said, who strive to educate.  I gave those beliefs along with my innocence to the faculty member who ripped off my idea.  Without getting into too much detail, about six years ago I had an idea for–let’s call it–a “scholarly enterprise.”  So I took this idea to one of our medical school faculty, a junior faculty member who was excited to help me (after discussion with a more senior faculty member who was quite helpful but didn’t have the time to help me).  “That’s a great idea!”  The next time I met with him, he told me that he had met and talked to someone else about this “scholarly enterprise” and found a way to turn it into a serious “money-making enterprise.”  He told me that he and this new collaborator might be meeting at place X at time Y, but that he would confirm it by email with me.   So time went by, drawing closer to time Y, so I sent this faculty an email without reply.  So when time Y arrived, I decided to go to place X just in case the meeting was going on.  As it turns out, the meeting was in fact happening and I was greeted with, “Oh, you’re here.”  Indeed, I was there.  Except that I wasn’t.  The conversation went back and forth between Faculty Mentor and the collaborator–on and on about how to transform the “scholarly enterprise” to “major money-making enterprise.”  Eventually the meeting was over–I think I was talked to about twice (once to assure me that they would allow me to be involved)–and I was left wondering what had happened.  The last thing I heard at the meeting was, “I’ll email you when we’re going to meet again.”  Indeed.  And yet, no emails. 

I still see Faculty Mentor around the hospital every once in a while and exchange pleasantries.  And sometimes he’ll ask, “So what’s going with your research…”  And it strikes fear in my heart: what he wants to steal my research ideas now?  Over the years I’ve come to learn from various people in-the-know that this individual does a lot of unethical things, in particular for money (Yeah, Bud–if you’re reading this–I know what you’ve done.  Probably the least of it too).

So what is the lesson of this story?  Easy, don’t trust anyone–especially if you are young and low on the totum pole.  If you are a student, forget about it.  You will get crushed like a bug and who’s gonna know about it?  Seems cynical, but I just showed you it can happen.  I had no recourse.  What good would it do anyway?  I took a good idea (really good, in my opinion) to a faculty member to help me develop it but my idea was ripped off and bastardized to maximize the revenue that could be made off of it.  I still remember that last meeting and how excited this guy was with his collaborator about how much money they would make.  And what is left of the Mudphudder?  Well, I plan on eventually going through with my idea.  I don’t know if I’ll really have the time again to do it, but I’ll try.  Also, if and when the bastardized version of my idea makes it to the market (if it already hasn’t), it’ll make it harder on me, but I’ll take a shot at it anyway. 

But at least Faculty Mentor has given me the gift of life-long emotional scars.  However, this is not a problem specific to or more rampant at my  institution or your institution.  It’s all over.  It’s a fact of academics–yes, I’ve met and spoken with people from all over with similar experiences.  But, I don’t honestly believe that most people in academics are like that.  In fact, probably 99% aren’t (that may be generous) but you just don’t know who the sleazeballs are.  In hindsight, there is no way I could have known.  So now, whenever I have a good idea, I either keep it to myself, waiting for the time that I become a faculty member with at least some recourse if someone tries to rip me off.  If and when I do say something about it, I only talk to a select few who I trust and even then, I protect myself. 

If you have no recourse against someone who could steal your idea and if there is no reason besides “ethics” for someone to not steal your idea, then I would recommend that you think twice before you share anything with anyone.  Unless of course, it is the season of giving and you are in a giving mood…

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could someone finish the other 49% of this blog entry for me?

This is another entry along the “Season of Giving” theme.  This holiday season, what better gift to give to a slacker member of the lab than to do their work for them. 

You know what really gets me?  People (graduate students, postdoc, research associates, whatever) who don’t take responsibility for their research projects and then the P.I., by virtue of needing the project finished, somehow gets others to finish the project and then Irresponsible Researcher gets a first author publication–sometime in a really good journal–sometimes in journals better than anything I’ll probably ever publish in.  That really steams me.  We bust our butts day and nights for our work.  We come up against roadblocks and struggle to get through them without any help and then I see these people who just drag their feet through their research and, because of the P.I.’s needs, get their work done for them.   Who knows what I’m talking about?

I was having coffee with a good friend of mine who has an onging project in the lab–a project that I think has a very realistic chance of ending up in the New England Journal of Medicince (for those of you who are not familiar, a publication in NEJM can make a career in academic medicine).  This project has been managed so far by a research associate in my friend’s lab and recently required the expertise of a collaborator who works in another field.  Since that time, however, this research associate has dumped the project on the hands of the collaborator and now that the project has hit a road bump, the project is sitting still with no sign of progress.  Meanwhile, my friend is stuck with a project with amazing potential and a research associate who isn’t interested.  Necessity has now forced my friend to do the work to overcome the road bump, get the project back on track and ultimately finished.  We spent our coffee talking about how to do this, came up with a plan and then determined the plan entailed work that the research associate had no interest (or possibly ability) in learning or doing.  Sad.  If this was my research associate, this person would have my foot up…  Well you get it, but my friend is simply super nice and just deals with it.  So now I am helping my friend to pick up the slack and get this project going again–because–and I mean this literally–this paper could end up in NEJM–it could be huge!!!  The crazy part is that it is conceivable this research associate may end up first author on an NEJM paper–a paper that wouldn’t have been if not for my friend’s need to get this project going.  Admittedly, this research associate will have done enough work when all is said and done to be most “deserving” of first author but the point for me is that 51%, 75%, whatever (and then giving up) just shouldn’t cut it.  If every project of which I completed 51% were finished for me, I’d be applying for departmental chair jobs instead of residency.  Moreover, if I had stopped at 51% into everyone of my projects that did succeed, I could have written another 10 papers with the extra time.

Now, yes of course those who actually worked through our projects and problems learn a lot more, blah blah blah, etc. but let’s face it: in the world of academia, the currency of choice is publications.  And it just gets to me that these tangible rewards are given out to people who give up on their work just because they find themselves at the right place at the right time.  But then again, that is so much of success in academics: being at the right place at the right time.  <Sigh> Mudphudder better just get off of the high horse for now.

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