Thursday, 31 May 2012

Tough Love II: 25 tips for early-career scientists


My first post in this series focused on how to make the most from your PhD. The PhD is a critical step in the career path of a scientist, but it is just that – a step. Doing well in your PhD will increase your chances of securing a good post-doc position but it won’t guarantee a successful academic career. It just buys you a ticket to the game.

So in this second ‘tough love’ post I'm going to focus on how you can get ahead in that game as an early-career post-doc. Let me say at the outset that a lot of this advice overlaps with my earlier blog post for PhD students, so I recommend you read that one first. There is also some useful advice for post-docs to be found here.

As with my earlier post, this advice is intended for readers who want a career in academia – i.e. those who want to be principal investigators (PIs) and run their own labs. And again, the guide is targeted to those in biomedical science, especially psychology and neuroscience. Some of the advice here is based on a seminar ‘How to get a research fellowship’, which I gave in 2010 at a Marie Curie FP7 Advanced Training Course on brain imaging.

Just who am I to be dishing out advice on how to succeed as an early-career scientist? The short answer is, nobody in particular! You can find out about my background here, but my track record is  nothing exceptional among PIs in my field. Maybe this is actually a good thing because it shows that an independent research career is achievable and doesn’t require special academic pedigree or genius. In brief, I did my post-doctoral research from 2002-2005 at the University of Melbourne, before moving to the UK in 2006 and taking up a BBSRC research fellowship at University College London. Since 2008 I've directed my own research group at Cardiff University. To date I have managed three post-doctoral researchers to the completion of 2-4 year contracts. So, overall, the advice stems from three sources of knowledge: things I’ve done myself, things I’ve seen others do, and things I’ve encouraged my own post-docs to do.

Your early post-doctoral years are formative. One of the troubling aspects of academia is that many good, even brilliant, scientists struggle to cope with the unrelenting pressure of post-doctoral science. The salary is modest at best, depressing at worst. The clock ticks faster than ever, and the pressure to publish hangs over everything like a merciless force of nature.

That’s the down side. On the up side, the publication pressure is certainly motivating and the post-doctoral life brings some pretty unique opportunities. I’ve heard it said that, second only to an independent research fellowship, the post-doctoral years provide the greatest professional freedom you can experience as a scientist. Emerging fresh from your PhD, you have a finely honed set of skills and knowledge, while at the same time you are (as yet) unencumbered by a heavy teaching load and the grind of administration. In many respects you are in the ‘zone’. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, your time in the zone is limited, so make the most of it!

Before we get into the specifics, one final warning. This post is about the real, not the ideal. There are many absurd and unfair aspects of the research culture in academia. You aren’t going to solve them as an early-career scientist, so I’m not going to discuss them here. Succeeding in your post-doc is about learning the rules of the game, such as they are, rather than moaning about them or trying to change them. 
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1.     Throughout your academic career, nothing – and I repeat nothing – is more important than your publication profile. To succeed you need to think like a farmer and build a pipeline that includes periods for seeding (design), growth (experimentation), and harvesting (analysis and write-up). During your post-doc, ensure that you always have at least one paper under review and one in preparation. This means you are always waiting for reviews and writing. Always. When you begin your post-doc this pipeline will probably consist of papers from your PhD. Maintaining this pipeline will ensure a healthy output, and if you starting falling behind then you need to take a good look in the mirror. Am I procrastinating about writing? Am I endlessly reanalysing old data rather than eyeing it pragmatically? Does my portfolio of studies include an adequate balance between slow-burn and rapid-fire experiments? Facing your problems is crucial; otherwise that blur in the corner of your eye will be your competitors racing past you.

2.     Be strategic about publishing. If, for instance, you have two studies that could be published either as two lower-impact papers or as one more definitive higher-impact paper, my general advice would be to combine them and shoot for a more prominent journal. You can always split them again later if the attempt fails. At the same time, keep an eye out for potboilers – results that will only ever be suitable for less prominent journals but which will be relatively quick and easy to publish. Don't waste precious time sending everything to Nature and Science.

3.     When it comes to publications, quality is paramount but that doesn’t make quantity unimportant. There is an obvious truth that junior researchers sometimes forget: publishing a lot of papers proves that you can write, and write fast. It declares to the world that you can communicate your science in an effective and efficient manner. This is absolutely crucial as you move forward in your academic career; you must be recognised by your peers and funders not only as an effective scientist, but also as a capable communicator.

4.     Aim to publish every year. Never allow a year's gap in your CV unless your career has been interrupted unavoidably or you have taken a justifiable career break. Otherwise a publication gap is extremely unattractive and akin to dangling a sign around your neck proclaiming “I struggle at publishing. You’ve been warned.” The rule of thumb in psychology and cognitive neuroscience is to publish four good papers per year, but this can vary. Whatever happens, be sure to publish something every year. If your experiments are slow or not yet producing publishable data, then publish a review paper.

5.     Aim for as many first-authorships as possible. It is crucial in your early professional life to build your own ‘brand’ as a scientist, and to do this you need to stamp out your intellectual contribution. I recommend always bringing up the issue of authorship in job interviews with prospective PIs. This will show that you are ambitious and serious about achieving the output that is crucial for both you and your PI. And unless there are no other job options available, don’t ever take a post-doc position where the PI cannot guarantee you first authorship on the majority (and preferably 100%) of papers stemming from your own work.

6.     Be sure to publish everything possible from your PhD. When you start your post-doc, you will probably have a lot of PhD experiments left to write up. Many post-docs have a strong aversion to doing this, bemoaning how much they are "over it" or how imperfect it all was. As natural as this instinct is, it must be firmly repelled because your future depends on maintaining your publication pipeline. If your PI is generous, s/he may be happy with you using some of your work hours for writing up PhD publications, but more often than not you will need to do this in your own time.

7.     Minimise time spent on collaborations where you are neither first nor second author. In psychology and neuroscience, second authorships carry modest weight. But at a post-doc level, anything lower down the list is basically just padding. Watch out if your CV starts to fill up with middle authorships at the expense of first authorships. Doing so will earn you a reputation as a technician or assistant. This can haunt you when applying for senior post-docs, fellowships or lectureships.

8.     Don’t waste time trying to be last author on papers. In the psych/biomedical world the final author position conveys seniority, but doing this as an early post-doc is like putting a toddler in a tuxedo. At best, readers will ignore it. At worst, you may come across as a careerist who elbowed their way into to a position they haven’t yet earned.

9.     Even though you are a junior member of the academic pyramid, it’s important to realise that you are no longer a PhD student or research assistant. As a post-doc you are a research professional on the road to autonomy. Your PI will expect you to work relatively independently, showing research initiative and leadership. You shouldn’t be merely dancing to the beat of your PI’s drum.

10.  Be proactive with the media and get to know your university press officer. Talking to journalists can be daunting at first, but it will help build your communication skills and your confidence. Discussing your own research with journalists is the gold standard, but it isn’t the only way you can interact. For instance, when emails get sent around your department from a journalist seeking  comments on a particular issue, come forward if you know about the topic (and remember, you don't need to the world leader in the subject to have something worthwhile to say). If you’re based in the UK then register with the Science Media Centre. Many of your academic colleagues will, by default, shy away from such opportunities. But they do so at their peril, not least because funders are increasingly regarding public engagement as an important responsibility of professional scientists. Speaking up in the media is not without risks, but it is one way of fulfilling your public engagement obligations, while providing evidence of your independence and communication skills to a future employer or fellowship panel.

11. When it comes to running experiments, the motto of the day is parallelise, parallelise, parallelise. A great way of achieving this is to embrace the opportunities afforded by student supervision. Get involved in the co-supervision of PhD students with your PI, and be proactive in the supervision of undergraduate projects. Take on capable students as voluntary interns to run side projects. In my experience there is no shortage of intelligent and motivated undergraduates who are willing to give up their free time to get involved in research – it helps them and it can help you.

12.  One of the best nuggets of advice I got as a post-doc was to aim to become the first to do something. It doesn’t have to discovering the Higgs boson, but aim to put your name to something new. This might be a new technique or behavioural task that overcomes limitations in existing paradigms, or a whole new way of thinking about a problem.

13.  Start a blog. It’s a great way of communicating with the public and honing your writing skills. It’s for you to decide whether this is best done under your real name or under a pseudonym. There are sensible arguments on both sides and many excellent pseudonymous bloggers in psychology and neuroscience (e.g. Neuroskeptic and scicurious). But keep in mind that working behind a pseudonym offers fewer benefits for your own career and limits your ability for public outreach.

14.  If you are employed on a grant held by your PI then negotiate carefully about which experiments are ‘hardwired’ and which can be modified through your input. This is a delicate piece of diplomacy. A good PI will listen if you bring creativity and insight to the table; on the other hand, s/he may be committed to prioritising certain aspects of the research grant even if your idea is better. So don’t be disheartened if your idea is shelved. Have a thick skin and return to it later.

15.  It may seem obvious but be sure to arrange regular meetings with your PI. If s/he is extremely busy then those meetings may be infrequent, but try to ensure regularity and keep in touch by email. Speaking with my PI hat on, I can say that I very much like being updated about progress and important developments without having to ask.

16.  Aim to write at least one successful grant application during your post-doc, either as PI or Co-I. Aside from the direct benefits to your research, being awarded grants is a sign of independence, creativity, and leadership potential.

17.  Unlike a PhD, a post-doc position is a job – at least that’s what your Human Resources division will tell you. However, if you go into a post-doc job interview with that mindset then you will struggle to compete with those who have similar CVs but approach science with zeal. A wise mentor once told me that when PIs appoint post-docs, they aren't looking for slaves; they're looking for junior versions of themselves. And since few PIs have a 9-5 mentality, few will employ post-docs with one.

18.  Aim to give at least 2-3 talks per year outside your own department. You don't need to wait for an invitation; you can always contact the seminar organisers directly and put yourself forward. Give local seminars as well. It is important to get noticed both within your own department and beyond.

19.  Networking in science is crucial and not always easy. The two factors that I think are most important are your publication record and your social confidence. There is some great advice about how to network effectively over at Scicurious’ blog. One comment in the discussion stood out for me, As soon as you publish noteworthy papers as a first- or senior-author, people will want to talk to you.” As a post-doc I found this to be true. So my advice is to publish hard and well. Then try to go to one good conference per year and meet people both independently and through your PI. Organising seminars can also be a great way to build important links with other researchers. When your PI has a visiting collaborator or speaker, get to know them. Join in with dinners and drinks at the pub. Don’t be shy.

20.  Review papers for journals. If you haven't yet published enough to be invited to review, tell your PI that you would be happy to review papers that s/he is sent. Trust me, your PI will thank you!
           
21.  Give yourself time to think. It’s easy to get swept up in the “chickens go in, pies come out” mentality of academia, but knowing when to stop and think is crucial for having much sought ‘Eureka’ moments. Give yourself time for reading and pondering.

22.  Keep your website up to date. It never ceases to amaze me how many junior post-docs are sloppy with their web pages, failing to update their lists of publications, talks, or other achievements. If you don’t manage your public image, nobody else will do it for you.

23.  Start developing your own big ideas for the future. As a post-doc I kept a notebook of random musings and it’s amazing how many of them bore fruit in later years, leading to successful fellowship and grant applications.
           
24.  For better or worse, funding agencies are increasingly seeking to defer a portion of research costs to the private sector. If your PI has industry links then take advantage of opportunities to talk to / work with industry during your post-doc. These can be valuable links to forge as you advance in your career.

25.  Finally, as you progress through your post-doc, be aware of the double-edged sword that is ‘larger than life’ syndrome. If your supervisor is famous then you will have a stronger chance of publishing in prominent journals, but many readers will also attribute the work to your PI. As a post-doc, publishing in good journals is of course paramount, but there are some techniques you can deploy to draw attention to yourself. The key one is to ensure that you are both the first author and the corresponding author. This means you will be the point of contact for reprint requests and media enquiries about your work.

So there it is. I hope you found it helpful. Much of this advice is common sense - and it isn't even particularly 'tough', in fact. As a post-doctoral scientist, you’ve passed through a major bottleneck in science. If you do good science and publish well, you’ll go even further and could be a PI within 5 years.

Good luck! Please do comment and leave any of your own tips for post-doctoral success.

20 comments:

  1. A lot of good stuff in there.

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  2. Thanks a lot for your post. it's really interesting. But I have a question for you that worries (and happens to many postdocs). And it's about a specific situation. What do you you think about the problem of having a PI who is "controlling" the papers you do/don't publish? I mean, what happens when a postdoc doesn't publish because for her/his PI the data is not enough for a paper? And the PI is always asking for more experiments. This happens often with "risky" projects. And sometimes your postdoc period finishes without papers not because you didn't work hard or follow your PI's advise, but because it was never enough for her/him.
    I would really appreciate your advise. I know it's not a tip to succeed as a postdoc, but I'm pretty sure many postdocs are wondering about this
    Thanks

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    1. Hi Maria
      Thanks for your question. This is a tricky situation. On the one hand, as I say above, productivity is crucial as a post-doc. Yet, quality is even more important (and see Dorothy Bishop's comment below).

      Unfortunately, once you’re in a situation like the one you describe, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. All authors of a paper, including the PI, must believe the findings before committing a result to the literary record. I personally think PIs should be realistic about the certainty in any set of data and so should help their post-docs publish, at least so long as quantity of papers is judged as a marker of success in the academic community. But others see things differently.

      Where this situation could be prevented is before you start your post-doc. My advice is to study your potential PI’s CV carefully and take note of how productive and successful the previous post-docs have been. What journals did they publish in? How many papers did they publish? Where did they go after their position ended? If they only published a few papers but ended up getting great jobs then that tells you that the PI is a smart operator who knows how produce high-impact science in small quantities. But if the post-docs publish little and go nowhere then it could be red flag. In my opinion, being a perfectionist is never healthy, as a PhD student, post-doc, or PI.

      This, by the way, is one reason conferences are so useful for PhD students. It is extremely valuable to learn about the working styles of different PIs in your field so you can find one that is the right fit for you.

      My other bit of advice would be to ensure that you don’t bank everything on high risk projects. I’ve made this mistake myself occasionally and it can cost you a lot. It's far better to build a balanced portfolio of low and high risk experiments, much like you would manage a financial investment. Then your bases are covered.

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    2. I am in a similar situation. PI is untimely in control of what gets submitted, and when if ever. My PI has decided that we are combining all the data we have collected over the year into some grand publication that will go to a high profile journal. I am skeptical for various reasons, the data isn't that good, combining it doesn't actually make sense and would take years to figure out. Basically it's a bad move. PI thinking it's a great move and will be a high impact paper some day. I think PIs ego is getting in the way and there's no way to remove it.

      Luckily PI let's me work on 'side projects' that he does not control. That's the only reason I'm not totally screwed.

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  3. Thanks for this, Chris. While I agree with much of your advice, including the importance of publishing, I am uneasy with the recommendation to publish 4 papers per year, and to write up as much as possible of your thesis. I think you should publish when you have done something important enough to communicate to the rest of the world. As someone who looks at lots of postdoc cvs on grants boards etc, I can confirm that not only does quality definitely trump quantity, but that weak, pointless, pot-boiling papers can actively harm your c.v. I’d rather see a c.v. with one really carefully-done, thoughtful, original paper every year, than one with ten papers per annum, none of which is memorable in any way. It’s a balance that’s not always easy to get right, but my advice is, remember that if you write stuff, editors and reviewers have to read it, and they may form a negative impression of you if it’s trivial or pointless stuff, or if you have clearly been chopping up a decent study into minimal publishable units. Quite a few funding agencies, search committees, and indeed the REF, ask people to specify their 4-5 best publications. This means that little is gained by writing oodles of papers. Yes, if I’m employing a postdoc I want to know they can write and can navigate their way around getting things into print. But if they appear to churn stuff out, then it’s a turn-off.
    I am sure that’s not what you intended to recommend, but the pressures on postdocs in these hard times are such that it’s easy to feel you are just playing a game, and it can have a very detrimental effect on science if people publish stuff they don’t really believe in. It’s hard to know how far Maria’s situation is a case of an obsessive PI holding her back, or a PI behaving like a good scientist should: ensuring that the work is replicable and solid before rushing into print. If you respect your PI as a scientist, then I’d go with their judgement, and you will benefit in the longer run by being associated with a good piece of work. And it’s a dismal business finding you have published something that later on you come to regret.

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    1. Hi Dorothy, thanks so much for commenting. It's great to hear your views on this, which are of course based on a lot more experience than mine.

      I think we agree completely on the big issues here, but I think it’s important to clarify a few points where I may have given the wrong impression.

      I’m certainly not arguing that anyone should publish poor quality science. When I use the term “potboiler”, I don’t mean weak or pointless papers. I mean specialised papers (including technical articles) that are simply not publishable in more prominent journals. A lot (perhaps the bulk of) science falls into this category. This was the advice I received time and again from the BBSRC fellowships committee; in fact I remember a slide from the induction session of my David Phillips fellowship in 2006 which stated “Publications: ensure a balance between Nature and potboilers”. And when I went for my mid-term assessment, they made a point of warning me that because I was transferring institutions, I should guard against a drop in the *quantity* of publications.

      I’m also not for a moment suggesting that papers should chopped up into minimal publishable units and churned out. Actually, quite the opposite (see my point 2) – where possible, experiments should be combined to create more convincing, higher-impact papers; “maximal impact units”, if you like. This is certainly the approach I have followed in my career.

      Having said that, if you are a junior researcher facing a scenario in which you have two studies that, when combined together, would make a minimal additional impact to being published separately then strategically I believe it makes sense to get the runs on the board and split them. It’s important to build a body of work.

      I’m also not suggesting that scientists should ever publish something they don’t believe. Replicability is of course crucial in science. But perhaps where our views differ slightly is in where one should set the bar for early-career researchers. As I see it, one of my responsibilities as a PI is to help support my post-doc’s career and develop their publication profile in the process of doing excellent science. In my relatively safe employment position, I could easily set a very high bar to publishing anything at all, unless I had replicated it say 3 or 4 times. That’s a luxury I may be able to afford, but it isn’t one that my post-doc can. They need to show evidence of productivity, and it would be very big gamble indeed to publish only 1 or 2 papers in a three year period and hope that, as certain as the findings are, they are also seen as significant enough to overcome the fact that there are only 2 of them.

      Some labs, like Nancy Kanwisher’s, achieve this very effectively and have built a reputation for doing superb science with a determined focus on internal replication. It’s a great way to do things if you can, but I guess I’m more of a realist; until we change the way science is valued across the board and completely zero the importance of publication *quantity*, scientists (and particularly early-career researchers) will need to publish before they are as certain in their findings as a senior tenured researcher would prefer. I guess that’s what I mean when I say I’m offering advice on the real (as I've seen it) vs. the ideal (as I'd like it); from my experience, at least, quantity of output is still regarded as an important gauge of individual success in science. I'm not saying it should be.

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  4. Interesting post and some good advice. A couple of questions
    Maximal impact publications with an interdisciplinary element (or just multiple types of experiments) can leave authors providing vital results in 2nd, 3rd or even later authorships. Is there a good way to avoid this?
    Minimal publishable units can be a lab policy in some groups, and result in pressure to publish small results very quickly regardless of the career needs of the post docs. Similarly post docs can be given roles in a group which don't lead to publications but require large amounts of time. Some of these are legitamate but again can slow you down; are there ways you can recommend to avoid such issues outside of careful negotiation with the PI? If you are in this situation, is the best course to keep your head down, or get out (if negotiating doesn't work)?

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    1. Hi. The first scenario you describe can often happen in large multi-site collaborations. There's no easy answer that I know, but a few thoughts…

      First - it's always best to find this information out before you start the position (see pt 5). Then you can prepare for it and work out a mutually acceptable approach in advance.

      One approach that can work is to negotiate for a joint authorship position including a statement of equal contribution; so, for example, if you are listed as second author you could then note this in your CV as a joint first-authored paper. And/or you could take turns being the corresponding author.

      If a lot of the experiments in your post-doc fall into high impact multi-experiment (or multi-disciplinary) papers, then I suggest negotiating rotation of the authorship order between papers so that you get your share of 1st authorships. It’s important to avoid being stuck in the middle repeatedly because there is a danger of becoming invisible.

      You might also want to think strategically about how much is gained in terms of the impact of the article by combining the experiments. For instance, if merging many experiments could lead to a Nature Neuroscience paper in which you are middle author, but splitting them could still lead to 2-3 solid Journal of Neuroscience papers in which several contributors have a chance for first authorship, I think it is fairer and more supportive of junior researchers to split the work. But if splitting the individual papers threatens to make them obscure and low-impact, then obviously this would be a bad choice. What this amounts to is a difficult, subjective, discipline-specific weighting of quality vs. quantity, so your PI’s experience should be a useful guide.

      Also, if you find that as a result of this arrangement you’re publishing very few (or no) first-authored publications, then a meeting with your PI is needed in which you spell out your concerns and perhaps instigate some additional projects that you can put your stamp on (see pt 11, for instance).

      Regarding your second question about post-docs being given responsibilities that don’t lead to publications, it depends a lot on the context. If you think the work is unnecessary and not what you signed up for, and you are unable to convince your PI to offer more opportunities that lead to publications, then it may be time to consider jumping ship. Of course, doing this can also create bad blood with your PI - and possibly a negative reference - so it’s not something to be done lightly. Sometimes it may be better to stick it out and make the most of it you can, particularly if you haven’t got long left on the contract anyway. And if your PI is a jealous sort, be careful jumping ship early for positions with his/her colleagues (or colleagues of colleagues). Word travels fast and, in my experience at least, ‘confidential’ job applications are a myth.

      It’s perhaps easier to avoid this situation altogether by checking out the productivity of former post-docs in your lab and where they ended up afterward (see my response to Maria above); and by making your expectations clear in any job interview.

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  5. Thanks to share your opionion. I found your post really interesting and helpful somehow. Being in my first year of postdoc I can just say that it's a difficult period since the pressure is so high that sometimes I have the feeling I'll never see the end although I'm working on several projects which will lead (I hope) to some good papers. But often I start wondering if we can really experience meritocracy in science. Sometimes it looks like you need to be the right person at the right moment in the right lab...all the rest doesn't really matter. Unfortunately I saw clever and skilled postdocs giving up and others, which were not really qualified but just sharks or even worst fakers, able to go on. There's something pathological/hysterical in our system and really few scientists take the risk to make a change.

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  6. The whole postdoc system works because of cheap labor supplies. At most, after Ph.D one should expect basic minimum rights. In my university, postdocs are required to work on weekends (non-official, but you get the sense). Isn't just totally unfair?.

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    1. Most PIs I know also do at least some work on weekends. I see it as less a 'slave culture' and more an expression of how self-driven scientists are. Like I say above, PIs don't want slaves, they want post-docs who are like them. The best scientists I know are the ones who don't see their working lives as jobs, but as a calling. Life is too short to waste time on professional jobs that you aren't passionate about.

      Personally I quite like working intensively for a period of time (including weekends) and then taking time off completely - rather than the conventional drudgery of cycling between working weekdays and non-working weekends.

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    2. Dear Chris, PIs want passionate slaves. And life is too short to work on weekends (all 7 days a week).

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  7. I'm about to embark on my doctoral journey next month, and I have to say, after looking all over the web for advice, yours is the best I've seen.

    I'm coming out of industry (where I was a biomedical grant writer) and have a couple of bachelor's degrees in different disciplines, so I do feel I have racked up some relevant experience and graduated from the school of hard knocks. My enthusiasm for academia started to wane last semester when I was finishing a B.S., however, due to a terrifying situation with a person I recognize now as a "dementor"... I can see clearly after reading your advice that I, too, played a role in the disaster, because I allowed my attitude to go sour and took my eyes off the prize. A negative feedback loop formed quickly, and it was impossible to get out.

    The good news, I suppose, is that I already went through this, and now feel ready to meet any challenges I face with a PI much more constructively. I now realize that asserting yourself early, and asking for necessary help, but without flinging poo or complaining to other students about the dementor, is the proper way to handle that kind of situation. Refusing to take the ooze that emanates from a toxic personality personally is key. If they're crazy to you, they're probably known to others for the same behavior; keep your chin up, make rational choices, and you'll come out ahead.

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  8. Hello. I have a question about the "corresponding author". I have developed project on my own, designed all experiments, performed and analyzed all experiments. I also entirely wrote a paper on my own- that has been sitting on my PIs desk for over a year, since “he doesn’t have time to read it". There is lot of issues here however the one I am really concerned with is that my PI says he will be a sole corresponding author, claiming me as a post-doc cannot be. He has no clue about the project and he acknowledges it was my project. Where do i go and find whether it is LEGAL for me to be a corresponding author??? Please any advice.

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    1. This sounds like a difficult situation with a complicated background. I don't know about the legal side of things (I suspect it would be very difficult and not worthwhile challenging such decisions through legal avenues). My advice would be to consult with a trusted mentor in your department who your PI respects, and then see if this person can arbitrate. Check for your university's guidelines on academic authorship and see if they can help reach a solution.

      Based on what you've said here, it seems perfectly justified for you to be the first and corresponding author for the paper. I disagree with your PI's position that post-docs cannot or should not be corresponding authors. In my opinion the opposite is true, indeed essential.

      I should add that it is possible to have multiple corresponding authors for a paper, so perhaps a compromise would be for both you and your PI to be listed. I would use this as a fallback position in any negotiation.

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  9. Hi Chris,
    I am a young researcher having passed my PhD at the end of last year, and will be starting a post doc abroad next month. I would really like to apply for fellowships to come to the new lab- I feel that we have a really interesting project, and that I have some good ideas to shape the research. However, currently I have only published 2 first author papers (one as a co-author) in relatively low impact journals. I am currently writing another 2 papers that should go into better journals (again as a co-author), but I doubt that these will be submitted by the fellowship application deadline. Whilst I know how competitive these fellowships can be, I am tempted to apply anyway- even just to obtain some experience in writing a proposal. My PhD supervisor thinks it may be a bit early in my career. Would you apply? Hope you don't mind me asking- would be good to get an outsider's advice!
    Thanks!

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    1. Hi - I agree broadly with your supervisor; you are probably better off waiting until your track record is more established. Fellowships are extremely competitive and you want to avoid too many misses, which some funders will take note of. In my view, it is best to apply for a fellowship when your track record is strong relative to opportunity. So, my advice would be to work hard in your new post doc position, build up your scientific contribution (and perhaps apply for some small grants during your post doc), and reconsider applying for a fellowship toward the end of it.

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  10. ok thanks for this chris- I appreciate your honesty! I will probably wait if it could deter future funders. Best wishes!

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  11. Hi Chris I wonder if you can provide some advice for how you handle the conflict between doing the science that you are there to do (i.e. producing publication-worthy results, achieving grant milestones, other day-to-day demands) and having any time or 'head space' for developing your own ideas or thinking about future career directions. It's something I really struggled with during my postdoc since the problem I was working on turned out to need a much greater investment of time and effort than either myself or my P.I. expected. What I'm left with is a lot of troubleshooting and "mechanistic"-type skills but few outputs. I'm taking this as a sign that I'm not cut out for academia and am exploring other options but I would be interested to hear your take on the problem.

    This is a really valuable advice page by the way so thank you! I wish I had found it at the beginning of my postdoc - things might have worked out differently.

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    1. Thanks for posting.

      This is a real dilemma, unfortunately with no easy answers. In any post doctoral position a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the project and the career needs of the post doc. A good PI will ensure that these are aligned as much as possible, but inevitably there are times when things don't go as planned and a project can require a significant investment of time that produces no obvious outputs. Sadly, more junior staff tend to be the proverbial "canaries in the mine" and can suffer significantly when a project goes awry.

      What I would say is that you shouldn't blame yourself or conclude on this basis that you are not cut out for academia. Certainly you might decide that a career outside the academy is best for you (and there is no shame in that), but regardless of whether you stay or leave I suggest taking the skills you have gained and explore what potential outputs could be generated from them and the work you have done (sometimes this could include a valuable technical paper, or a useful review). When problems strike, often the solution during the course of the project is for the post doc to think creatively (beyond what their PI can imagine) to create their own opportunities, e.g. by applying for small additional funds, taking on side projects, and maintaining a list of science ideas in their own time to pursue at a later date.

      I wish you luck!

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