Saturday, April 16, 2011

Musings on co-authorship, co-PI-ship, job-seeking etiquette, and career/mommyhood

Another combo post, from the long comments I have a tendency to leave on other people's blogs.

1) In response to DrugMonkey's post on the proper assignment of credit (co-authorship) on scientific papers. More specifically, on when and how to sever ties with a previous advisor/group.

About 6 months into my tenure track, I had a heart-to-heart with my PhD advisor (I didn't do a postdoc) and told him that I had been told by the folks at my new university that it would look bad for my tenure case if I continued to have papers with him for too long. We decided we'd wrap up one more paper with his name on it and that would be the end. No one was upset or disrespected. Well-meaning advisors realize you need to sever the umbilical cord (both in reality and on paper), and the person whose tenure is on the line needs to make sure (sooner rather than later) that everyone understands what must be done and why.

I did a similar thing regarding severing co-authorship with collaborators: a student came to me from a friendly group, with an MS and a piece of code developed there. Over the next three years we did a lot of new work that somewhat relied on the code he had brought with him and his previous advisors were on all the new publications. After their involvement had become purely that of looking over the final manuscript and catching typos (worth an acknowledgement, not a co-authorship) and stayed that way for nearly two years, I decided it was high time to address the issue head-on; I exchanged a couple of emails with them, saying that perhaps it's time to part ways as we have moved too far from the topic where their original contribution lied. They were both OK with it, one even acknowledged that for a while he had been uncomfortable with the essentially courtesy co-authorship.

A case in point for the PI being the corresponding author on a paper: the first author (student or postdoc) simply won't be at the current email address permanently, whereas the lead PI (last author in my field) typically will. Sometimes students/postdocs feel robbed of their ownership of the paper if they are not listed as the corresponding author. In those cases, whenever possible (which is often in my field) I request that both the student/postdoc and I, the PI, be listed as corresponding authors.

2) Dr. Sneetch (awesome and on the tenure track) wondered how to deal with a belligerent co-PI who would love nothing more than to take his/her share of money on an awarded grant and do something barely related to the work described in the grant, leaving the PI to justify the detour to the program officer.

Sneetch, I don't have first-hand experience (PI on a grant where someone just takes the money and does something totally unrelated) but I have had the experience of being a co-PI on a multi-investigator grant where another co-PI has either gone off and done the same (blown money on whatever), and then either severed all communication with the rest of the team or tried to argue that he is of course doing stuff related to the main project. Such a renegade co-PI indeed endangers the whole project and chances of renewal (especially in DOD agencies, where you better do what you promised and not aggravate your program officer).

I understand your frustration. You are unfortunately not tenured, so you have to tread lightly around asshole senior colleagues. Rule No 1 -- never again engage in additional collaborative proposals with a person who would not honor the project. It's not worth it, find someone else to do the same work even if at another university. As for the grant(s) you currently have where a colleague has gone over to do his own thing, how is the money managed? Is it a common account, or do you make small subaccounts for each co-PI? If the latter, you are kind of screwed. If the former, I think nominally all expenses would have to go through you and you have veto power.

Anyhoo, if you are the PI and one co-PI is asking to do something unrelated to the main project and you really think it's too far out and are uncomfortable supporting this change of direction, I would employ the good old "it's not me, it's the program officer" routine: tell him that you think you have no problem with it, but that you talked to the program officer (even if you didn't) and the PO doesn't agree it's within the scope of the program, so your hands are tied even though you would really really like to help/comply. *bat eyelashes here*

If you are actually OK with changing the scope and it's NSF, you can fill out the "change of scope" or similar forms when you submit annual report, and you should consult with the PO as soon as possible to get the formal OK from him/her. (Many PO's at the NSF don't care about a reasonable change of scope as long as you crank out good papers.) Other agencies have similar mechanisms to change scope -- but only if you as the PI are OK with the change. If you are not, as I said, play powerless and blame it on the program officer that your hands are tied -- this until you get tenure; once you are tenured, just say "Sorry, no."

3) Massimo muses on the appropriate etiquette for academic job seekers with multiple offers.

After I had interviewed (has it been 7 years already?), the first offer I received was from my first choice (among the places I interviewed), let’s call it Uni A, and they gave me something like 4 weeks to respond; the second offer came a week later, from Uni B. After hearing that I had received an offer already, Uni B gave me a week to decide. Actually, Uni B had been the first to interview me, more than a month before any other; I liked them a lot, and if they had been prompt about making me an offer, I would have likely taken it. Instead, they waited more than 2 months to give me an offer, during which I had two more interviews and fell in love with my current place (Uni A). I ended up deciding about 10 days after receiving the 1st offer (from Uni A), and 2-3 days after receiving the offer from Uni B. At that time, I also withdrew my application from Uni C, the third place where I had interviewed only a couple of days before the first offer came in; I knew I would never consider Uni C's offer as competitive to those of Uni A or B (too high of a teaching load and part of the country I would really not want to live in if I could help it -- bad public schools, a very red state); a couple of people actually suggested I should wait to see if I could get an offer from Uni C too, just to see if I could get 3 out of 3, but I thought that would be totally unethical and douchebaggy of me.

Anyway, I think it’s important to assess whether the candidate genuinely seems like he/she would want to work at your university. Sometimes we get these excellent candidates, but they don’t click, there is a marked lack of interest on their part, yet we still give them offers and waste a lot of time waiting and they of course don’t accept. For instance, we interviewed a woman a few years back, she had 6 or 7 interviews that year. She gave a great talk and had a stellar record, but you could tell she didn’t particularly care about the impression she left on us; she had her sights set on greener pastures. That’s quite alright, but we ended up giving her an offer anyway, which she of course declined, and we ended up wasting a lot of time on her that year and ended up hiring no one.

I am contrasting this with another excellent candidate where there was an instant chemistry with everyone in the department and he was genuinely excited about the city and the potential collaborators. You could tell he would be a great fit, and he really is! My interview was a bit like that — love at first sight, both with the city and the potential collaborations. I never regretted my decision.

4) Dr. Sneetch wonders how much her career suffers when she temporarily slows down due to childcare obligation.

One piece of advice is not to overshare with people at work what your absences mean. I learned this from a senior female colleague who is a master of maintaining the aura of aloofness that makes everyone think she's some kind of deity. You are covering your teaching and non-negotiable service, and that's great. How you organize your time beyond that -- well, it's (almost) nobody's business. You could be going to a string of conferences or review panels, right? You are simply not available -- that's what most people need to know. What it is that you are doing in that time -- most people need not know.

That colleague I mentioned -- she only says "This week does not work for me." No explanation. If you want her time, you have to propose another date and time. Whether she is doing aerobics all week, or is at a conference, or her kid is sick -- no one knows.

Anecdotally, when men are away, people assume they are away on business. When women are away, people assume it's family. Don't give them more ammunition to further stereotype you.

And don't worry about putting research on the back burner temporarily. The work-family balance is never a balance; more like a seesaw. When a kid is sick, of course research is a lower priority. In my experience kids really seem not to get sick very often past a year or two in a childcare setting.


New prof in new India said...

Thanks for sharing your job-search story. Last year, I interviewed for three positions. The place that I chose was initially my third choice, but I fell in love with the place during the interview. My first choice started showing an interest in me only after word got around that my second and third choices were interested in me. However, my visit to first choice place revealed some rather disturbing aspects that I had not anticipated. It made me re-evaluate my priorities.
I accepted the offer from my then-third choice place without delay and withdrew applications from the other two places. The difference in timelines of hiring procedures followed at these places also played a role in my decision. New places in India, which need faculty, make offers quickly while the older places tend to drag their feet because of their bureaucratic procedures.
For a few days, I wondered if I should have played smarter and waited for offers from first and second choice. But, I have not had reason to regret my decision and have been very happy with my current position.

I have recently written a post about my job-interview experience at my blog

Alyssa said...

Love that last piece of advice. I am very conscious of making sure I don't tell people why I am unavailable (whether it is because I have another meeting, have something personal to do, or just don't want to do it). No one needs to know the details, just that they need to find a different date/time. I find it very useful in my personal life too. Yes or no - no explanations necessary.

Chris said...

Sorry to go off on a tangent but ... it's possible not to do a post-doc? Is that more often the case when the PhD was on the long side? I always thought a post-doc wasn't really optional, but number of different stints and duration could vary ...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

One piece of advice is not to overshare with people at work what your absences mean. I learned this from a senior female colleague who is a master of maintaining the aura of aloofness that makes everyone think she's some kind of deity. You are covering your teaching and non-negotiable service, and that's great. How you organize your time beyond that -- well, it's (almost) nobody's business. You could be going to a string of conferences or review panels, right? You are simply not available -- that's what most people need to know. What it is that you are doing in that time -- most people need not know.

Yeah, definitely. I do a lot of traveling and other shitte that keeps me away from campus. Every so often one of my colleagues will say something like, "Oh! I haven't seen you lately? Have you been away?" My response is always to just chuckle at them knowingly and walk away.

If you are a professor and you are fulfilling your academic obligations, then it's no one's fucken business how and where you organize your time.

GMP said...

New prof, thanks for your jobhunt story and the link.

Alyssa, CPP, thanks for the comments!

Chris, whether or not a postdoc is necessary to get a TT position depends strongly on the field. In physics, chemistry, and biomedical sciences a postdoc is mandatory for TT; I don't know about geological sciences, non-biomed biological sciences and math. (I must admit I have no clue whether there are postdocs in social sci or humanities.) In many (not all) branches of engineering and computer science, it is possible to get a TT postion straight out of grad school. It has to do with how employable fresh PhD's are outside of academia: in fields where PhD's readily find well-paid jobs, no one will work for $40 K as a postdoc; so academia competes for quality people by enabling them to get TT positions straight out of the PhD.

In my tenure-home department, about 40% of recent hires were straight out of the PhD, and 60% had either a postdoc or some other post-PhD experience (typically a company). Hireability without a postdoc depends exclusively on how good your record looks upon graduating (I finished in a bit over 4 years, so it's not like I took forever; btw, in my field a PhD of 6+ years is considered too long).

Still, I would say that in my field at least, even though it's possible to get a TT position without a postdoc, actually having one on your CV is considered a plus, and postdocs are getting more and more common. Not to mention that there are things I wish someone had taught me before I started my TT (such as grant writing), it would have made the first couple of years on TT much easier. A good postdoc experience should be able to provide training in grantsmanship, the ability to perfect your technical and paper-writing skills, a chance to try out some new research directions, give you added exposure at conferences, opportunities to teach and mentor junior group members, etc.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Thanks GMP for the shout out. Your advice is always right on. Timely too. Saved me from messing up. And thanks CPP. I'm going to be doing a lot of chuckling ;)

Anonymous said...

I was really surprised by your comments on corresponding authors. I was corresponding author on all my first-author PhD publications, and I can't imagine it being any other way. (I did most of the work, including the conceptualization.) That the email address might be discontinued seems like an odd excuse... there's always forwarding. I think the corresponding author should be whoever has intellectual "ownership" of the piece, and at least in theory-oriented fields, that's usually the first author.

GMP said...

Anon, it has often happened that I try to contact the first author of a paper and they have since moved and are MIA (and the email is defunct; forwards from university addresses usually don't work indefinitely but for 6 months or so after leaving). Then I usually have to dig up the senior author anyway, since they are often easier to locate. When I was a grad student, I was also corresponding on all papers, but people contacted my advisor anyway because I was unknown and he was fairly famous.

My experimental colleagues never have anyone but the lead PI listed as the contact author. On my group's papers, usually both the lead student/postdoc (i.e. first author) and I as the lead PI are listed as contact; since we are both good people to contact regarding clarification, getting raw data, permission to reprint figures etc, I don't see why we would not both be listed. I don't think multiple contact authors diminish the first author's contribution in any way.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:50 here. I suspect there might be significant differences by field here. My school recently had some sessions for postdocs on authorship issues, and a major topic that came up was who was listed as corresponding author. In some fields (especially experimental), people are apt to refer to the "[Senior Author's] study" instead of the "[First Author's] study," and this bias indeed might better reflect their relative contributions. As we know, for lots of papers, it does not. Especially for high-impact, career-making, reputation-establishing papers, I think it's critical that the underling only be credited as the corresponding author if he or she was actually the driving intellectual force behind the work. I think people (again, this might be field-dependent) do pay attention. Indicating, "No, really, go talk to and meet this grad student you've never heard of if you have a question about this work--don't assume your friends [the senior authors] have the best inside scoop on everything" helps attenuate academic cliqueyness, age discrimination, etc.

I can't speak to the forwarding expiration problem, since I've not run into it. Sounds like a good reason for scientists to get committed lifetime email addresses.

Anonymous said...

(And by "cliqueyness," I meant "cliquishness"!)

Barefoot Doctoral said...

Thanks for the advice on family balance academic performance. I wish I'd read it at the beginning of the academic year. I'm a post doc in a 2 + epsilon body problem that involves a 8 hour commute every weekend. Fall term I wasn't teaching, and I told my mentor that I wasn't going to be around much. She wanted me to tell the department chair, who wanted me to take an unpaid leave of absence if I was going to be gone for more that some small number of days during the term. (Wiser heads in the department have since kindly admonished me for over sharing). This term, I'm teaching so I have to commute every week. But even still, I'm keeping where I'm going a secret.

Doc said...

I just found your blog and REALLY am excited to hear all of your ideas/opinions/musings. I just accepted an appointment for my first tenure-track role and am super excited.

I'm amazed that your first choice school gave you 4 weeks to decide. I got a solid 7 days and my second offer came in on day 8. I have no regrets, but man, I would have liked to feel like I was in control.

GMP said...

Doc -- congratulations on landing a tenure track position! You're in for quite an adventure!

Who owns phone said...

I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but it really compensated for my time. I will post a link to this page on my blog. I am sure my visitors will find that very useful. Hrmm that was weird, my comment got eaten. Anyway I wanted to say that it's nice to know that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the same info elsewhere. This was the first place that told me the answer. Thanks.

Job Interview Questions said...

Sounds like a good reason for scientists to get committed lifetime email addresses...

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