What is our “duty” to those not on the TT track?

Drugmonkey reposted an older post about the ‘hierarchical nature of the modern academic bioscience labororatory’, and this repost has generated quite a long comment thread which I have been following loosely. Part of the discussion has revolved around mentorship of trainees- including trainees who choose not to pursue an academic career.

Comrade Physioprof commented  …

I would be committing malpractice if I were to attempt to advise my trainees about how to succeed in industry, SLACs, high school teaching, or anyfuckingthing other than the tenure track.

Yikes. While on some level I get where this comment is coming from, I think it’s a cop out on an important responsibility that we have as mentors- a role, which I might add is not rewarded AT ALL by the traditional methods of reward in academic bioscience ($$, papers). While I’m reluctant to get in a blog fight with  C PP (whom I otherwise adore, just so you know), but things have been a little dull lately so  I’m going to face the fear and do it anyway.

Why is this a cop out?  Well, first- we admit and train vastly larger numbers of Ph.D. students than there will be tenure track positions to fill. Let’s save ourselves now and not feign ignorance on this please. I do think that once we admit someone, we have a responsibility to the student beyond just sayin’ ‘I’ll help you if you choose/or are intellectually capable of the TT track, otherwise leave your lab coat on the chair on your way out after your 6th year…’, just as the student has a responsibility to learn and work to the best of their ability for their mentor and for their own advancement on whatever track they choose. Getting a Ph.D. isn’t like going to the police academy… an example mentioned by some of the commenters… where you spend maybe 2-3 months of your life. We are admitting people to a 5+ year program, we will spend huge $$ on their training in exchange for a big chunk of their effort and life. To me, admitting 10x more students than we know that there are TT positions for with the idea that we are only going to mentor the single one that will choose this track, essentially throwing 99% of them to the wind, is ethically wrong.

Why does this attitude bug me so much? Because it’s not just about telling them about alternative career options, it’s deeper than that. I’ve encountered PIs in my career who felt that they couldn’t mentor trainees who weren’t interested in the tenure track- those trainees became viewed/treated as labor for hire. I guess my feeling is, that if one of my Ph.D. students tells me that they want to be a teacher, that doesn’t give me permission to abdicate my responsibility to teach that person how to do experimental biology. It doesn’t give me permission to just give them a list of experiments that need doing so I can analyze their data. And it doesn’t give the student a pass to stop tryin’ to learn what there is to be learned in a Ph.D. program either.

It gives me an extra opportunity though- to try and supply additional training experiences for that student when its possible- maybe monitoring PBL sessions or teaching a lab for undergraduates or medical student’s once in a while. Hopefully this allows  that student to leave with a leg up on the teaching position that they want when they finish their degree, in addition to having learned to be an experimentalist and having made a contribution to the field.

As for mentoring people interested in other careers where they might use their biology expertise, say law or industry. Let’s face it, how difficult is this really?  I surely can’t recite the required prerequisites for law school to a trainee, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. But I can put them in contact with people that I’ve met throughout my career that DO know about this as a career path that might be able to give them a leg up. And man, don’t tell me that you don’t know any such types- if your Ph.D. class was anything like mine, you are the only one of the class in academia- the other 9 are either in law, teaching, or industry- and only an email away.

Fiinally, to come around to the ‘we’re training more than we can put in TT positions’ again- I have a colleague who only rarely takes Ph.D. students, and primarily hires post-docs. This mentor makes sure that all the postdocs that work in his/her laboratory- get teaching experience during their time in the laboratory. Why? Because this mentor has problems training too many people for too few positions, and then having put them out there with no skills to fall back on if their TT ambitions should not come to pass…

Just a thought.

P.S. Isis also has a post up about DM’s post and C PP’s comment that I didn’t see until after I wrote this post. You can find it here!

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18 thoughts on “What is our “duty” to those not on the TT track?

  1. Thank you. This is exactly the kind of mentorship doctoral and post-doctoral trainers should provide to their trainees.

    Falkow-ites Rule!

  2. Very good post, and I agree with most of what you said, but I have to quibble with this:

    This mentor makes sure that all the postdocs that work in his/her laboratory- get teaching experience during their time in the laboratory. Why? Because this mentor has problems training too many people for too few positions, and then having put them out there with no skills to fall back on if their TT ambitions should not come to pass…

    Um, the most likely job for somebody using his/her teaching experience would be in an undergraduate institution with a significant teaching expectation. And, remarkably enough, faculty jobs at such schools (e.g. mine) are TT positions.

    Treating even an undergraduate institution like an “alternative” to academic science is a fascinating bias that so many academics have. On my last day as a postdoc, before going to an undergraduate institution, another postdoc said that I was “leaving science.” Yes, that’s why I’ve gotten a grant, published a paper, joined a research institute, and been elected to office in a professional society since starting at an undergraduate institution. Because I’ve left science. Uh huh.

  3. Here here.

    IMO a good academic mentor feels a responsibility to learn a little something about careers in industry and teaching. I suppose there’s nothing explicitly wrong with CPP’s attitude as long as he tells the graduate students about his attitude prior to joining the lab. I would want to know that kind of information in advance. While not speaking directly to CPP’s comments (I don’t know him and I didn’t read the comment in its full context) this general attitude seems like the hallmark of a luddite.

  4. You are grossly misrepresenting what I wrote. What I wrote was that I don’t mentor my trainees on *how* to succeed in those other careers. I never said I don’t mentor them in every other possible regard that I can, including trying to hook them up with mentors who *can* help them in those areas. BTW, I would have clarified this point over at DM, but it is too much fun watching a bunch of whiny-ass titty-babies gleefully excoriate me!

  5. this is exactly what i’m thinking from the trainee perspective. i don’t think it’s too much to fire off a couple emails- or just give those email addresses to your trainee to send the emails- to hook up with outside mentors.

    PIs can’t be everything to everyone, of course. but pointing students in the right direction is a tremendous help. (isn’t that what grad school is anyway?) at mega u, we rarely receive ALL our training from just the home lab environment, we go learn new stuff from other labs and bring the techniques back. this typically starts with my PI saying, “ya know, you should email my friend [field rockstar] because they do this technique all the time.”

  6. That makes more sense.

    It doesn’t sound like you’re quite the, “if you’re not TT then don’t waste my time,” kind of PI.

  7. It doesn’t sound like you’re quite the, “if you’re not TT then don’t waste my time,” kind of PI.

    Those who know anything about my own career trajectory would laugh their fucking asses off at the notion that I would be.

  8. C PP- ‘know anything about my own career trajectory would laugh their fucking asses off

    Indeed… and I know that you didn’t mean your original comment exactly like it sounded. I used your comment to introduce other academics who I have observed from time to time and who do have the ‘if you’re not TT then don’t waste my time’ attitude. And there is yet another group- who, when you go to them as the trainee and tell them what you want and what your goals are, do what they can to help by giving you names and #s.

  9. Yes, CPP , after having read all of the posts in your archive on mentorship, I’m beginning to think you that you like making these provocative comments. Perhaps, there is something of a mad scientist lurking beneath the teddy bear mentor. MUAHHHHH!!

  10. If you look at the numbers, tenure track academic positions should be considered the “alternative” career, since most Ph.D.s end up with jobs other than TT faculty positions!

  11. “This mentor makes sure that all the postdocs that work in his/her laboratory- get teaching experience during their time in the laboratory.”

    It might not apply, but its worth PIs checking whether they have to drop the reported % effort for postdocs that want to do any teaching at all (i.e. <100%). I learned at a society committee meeting recently that a coupla institutes have been dinged pretty hard by the Feds for having labs in which postdocs had been caught doing stuff outside of their designated research objectives. Even doing other research not stipulated in the grant covering the postdocs salary was considered a serious transgression. No idea whether this applies to graduate students.

  12. If you look at the numbers, tenure track academic positions should be considered the “alternative” career, since most Ph.D.s end up with jobs other than TT faculty positions!

    QTMFT!!!!!!

  13. Thanks for articulating so nicely exactly what I was thinking after reading the other posts (and the multitude of comments)!

  14. The other thing I wish, in an ideal world, would be that PIs not treat their non-academic-PI-minded trainees worse than they treat their future-PI offspring. Some PIs are pretty good about this, but others, I think, somehow make their non-future-PI trainees just disappear from their heads–and as a result those trainees not only don’t get job-future mentoring, but also flail a lot harder while they are grad students (or postdocs) due to lack of input from above.

    Sorry this comment was a little incoherent, but the point is that it’s not just about being willing to hook your trainees up with relevant mentor peeps–it’s also about continuing to treat them like first-class citizens even after it’s clear they don’t want to become you when they grow up.

  15. Sometimes, I think even the best-intentioned PIs tend to (unconsciously, subconsciously, whatever) favor the students who profess a desire to pursue the tenure track. It’s that ubiquitous desire to propagate and preserve one’s own lineage.

    I had great respect for my graduate advisor, but he had a strong tendency to put extra effort into those trainees with faculty-type-aspirations. Given that I never really made up my mind about what to do with my career (and still haven’t), I never got the short end (nor the long end) of the stick in my grad lab. My advisor stills put in a moderate amount of effort mentoring me and encouraging me to pursue the TT. I’m glad I never told him I wasn’t interested, because he would have lost interest in me, and that, really, is a shame.

  16. Dr. J&Mrs. H.- That is quite right- I agree- one’s status as a citizen in a lab shouldn’t change based on different career goals than your mentor.

    Bugdoc- Hey!!! How are you? I hope all is well :-).. and you are totally correct, by the numbers it is the TT positions that are ‘alternative’…

    DSKS- Students can only be 50% time devoted to research- so I don’t think this would technically apply to them.

  17. From what I understand there may be a lot of variation in how PIs approach mentoring and assistance with job opportunities around the world.

    I understand that in Europe, PIs take their roles as mentors very seriously, including assistance in helping their PhD students transition to jobs. The downside is that they are therefore very reluctant to take on PhD students that might have difficulty finding jobs,such as older students who will be discriminated against in academic jobs. A specific example: students over 25 who must apply for special dispensation to enrol for a PhD (because of their age), and where it is rare for students over 30 to be accepted into PhD programmes at all for this reason. So, although we could argue that it is positive that PIs take their mentoring role seriously, there are clearly downsides for certain groups of students who will simply never be accepted.

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