Insecurity as Motivator

Apr 18 2011 Published by under advising, postdocs

Today's question for discussion is a bit complex, but has some interesting implications (ethical, practical, cosmic).

Imagine that a PI is supervising a postdoc or research scientist who is quite talented and has great expertise, but who tends to lack motivation when it comes to writing papers and proposals. This researcher would be happy just getting data, but, because he/she is not a technician and is in a position that requires writing papers and proposals, the PI has to find ways to help (motivate) the research scientist to write.

Of course, one option in this situation is to not renew the contract and replace the non-writing postdoc with someone who writes, but let's assume that this research scientist has expertise that the PI values and there isn't a large pool of candidates with similar skills. Also, the research scientist is not eager to move on. It is in the interests of both the PI and the research scientist to continue working together.

The research scientist needs to raise at least 25% of their own salary each year from grants, but to get grants, one typically has to write proposals. To get -- and continue to get -- grants, one has to write papers.

Question #1: What to do? Is this a survival-of-the-fittest situation, and the scientist - however talented at some aspects of research - should be cut loose because s/he is not functioning well in all required aspects of the job? Or, because this person has a high level of expertise in particular research applications, should the PI find a way to work with the research scientist anyway, even if it means writing papers and proposals for them? I guess we have to assume that changing the scientist's job title to "technician" isn't feasible in this case.

Now let's assume that the PI figures out a way to cover the research scientist's entire salary for the near future. Telling the research scientist (RS) that these funds exist would relieve the RS of stress and anxiety about their financial situation and job security for a while.

But: telling the RS that these funds exist would completely obliterate any chance that the RS would write any part of their own proposals and papers, and would make it more difficult for the PI to hire additional postdocs because those funds would likely be committed to the non-writing RS. Although the PI doesn't want the RS to live in unnecessary uncertainty about funding, the PI does want the RS to have some motivation to write papers and proposals: for their own career development, for the good of the research group as a whole, and because it is still a part of the RS's job description.

Question #2: Should the PI tell the research scientist about the stable source of funding? Must the PI tell the research scientist? Or is withholding this information justified by the possible benefit it would have of motivating the RS to write?

Perhaps someone who is not functioning well in an essential aspect of their job (in this case, writing) should seek other employment that better fits their abilities, but is there any other way to solve this problem so that this otherwise beneficial collaboration can continue?

Would you tell the research scientist about the new funding, even if the consequences were no papers and no proposals?

Or would you maintain a certain level of insecurity in the hopes it would act as a motivator?


52 responses so far

  • rknop says:

    If the research scientist is valuable and contributing *as is*, and the PI can find a way to fund the research scientist, I'd say go with it. I *would* talk to the research scientist about it, and make sure that the RS knows that in future jobs he may not be able to cut it without writing the papers and grants.

    One thing that bugs me about how we judge scientists is the whole "one size fits all" measuring stick. Some fields are worse about this than others. The whole notion that each and every one of us has to be good at and motivated at every single piece of what we do is kind of bizarre. Clearly this person is contributing, because otherwise there wouldn't be a dilemma. If so, then why the angst about whether or not they need to be doing their job differently? Science will progress better if we allow different people to work on the things that are their strengths, instead of insisting that everybody be able to check off every box.

  • Geologist says:

    Why not offer the extra money as a technician position? 75% scientist, 25% technician unless the postdoc starts to cover the last part of the funding. That should take some stress away and still be fair. I've heard of other who can't fully cover their salary and therefore work parts of their time as technicians. Hopefully that way some of the motivation to write applications would remain.

  • MLarsen says:

    Using insecurity as a motivator also requires that the insecurity actually acts as a motivator for that particular individual! While this might be the case for some, others might be more motivated by knowing about job security and thus have the courage to write more, and also try to apply for other grants.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Opportunity cost, rob. Might be someone else out there who brings the whole package.

    I say no, you are not in any way obliged to tell your staff about new funding. Yes, even if you are holding back for motivational purposes.

    • rknop says:

      But what is this "whole package" thing? Do we really do better by throwing aside those we've already invested in and those who are good at what they do by getting the people who do everything? Is this the best model for science?

      Part of my cynicism comes from the observation that on the tenure track, it's not the ability to do things well, but the ability to check all the boxes while self-marketing that really pays off. But even putting that aside, it's simple truth that different people have different strengths. Why can't we play to that?

      • rs says:

        I agree with rknob. Why not to value the person for what he is good at and get on with it. Why we should be expecting that everyone should do everything. Being an expert in a subject and able to do science is a valuable skill by itself.

    • yul says:

      If you think you're "motivating" them, think again. if I ever found out my supervisor deliberately lied to me to cause me anxiety, I would loss respect for him at the very least. This passive-aggressiveness is insulting. A PI is supposed to be a leader. A leader should resolve conflicts with integrity not by dishonest manipulations. Employees tend to feel betrayed (and with it lose respect and sense of loyalty) if they find out they've been manipulated and lied to.

      FSP: since you are the PI, the RS's continued employment and livelihood is in your hands. With it could be his/her ability to feed and clothe his/her family and pay the rent and bills. Implicit in the PI-employee relationship is the assumption that the staff member can trust their PI to pay their salary or to be honest with them if unemployment is imminent. You are betraying this trust if you lie to him/her about this issue.

      This is not a small amount of money we're talking here such as for traveling to a conference or buying new supplies. This is your employee's salary and livelihood we're talking about. You shouldn't mess with their minds over this issue. It's even worse when your reasons for doing so are trivial in comparison to the amount of stress you are going to induce in him/her - it's not like the RS was unproductive and brought no value to the lab, just that you wanted him/her to do "more." So please, don't be dishonest and passive-aggressive about this issue, be upfront and tell the RS plainly that yes there's funds to support him/her, but.... (and then you decide how to fill in the rest of the conversation)

      • Science Professor says:

        Just to clairfy: I am not the PI in the scenario, which seems to be complex (I distilled it). From what I understand, it is the research scientist's responsibility to raise 25% of their salary; the PI provides the other 75% and has consistently done so. The issue is whether the PI should provide the other 25% to offset the inability of the research scientist to write proposals and papers that would help generate some or all of the 25% that is the research scientist's responsibility. This is not asking the RS to do more. This is requiring the RS to fulfill their responsibilities, for themselves and for the group as a whole.

        I don't think it's fair to say that the PI should come up with the other 25% because the research scientist's hypothetical family will go without food, clothing, and shelter otherwise. Shouldn't those same priorities motivate the RS to deal with their writing problems? PI's are responsible for their employees, whether or not they have families to support.

        I actually think the PI should support the RS as much as possible, if the RS is of value to the research group as a whole and the resources are available.

        • yul says:

          FSP, my apologies for mistaking you for the PI in question.

          My point is not that the PI is obligated to continue supporting the RS forever and ever simply because the RS may have a family to feed.

          My point is that the issue of salary is extremely important to people (perhaps because they may have families to feed). Therefore, a PI shouldn't mess with an employee's mind - i.e. lying, or with holding information, being manipulative about THIS issue. If a PI wanted to lie for personal gain to the RS over whether there's travel funds to attend a conference , that's not such a big deal morally because attending any one conference is unlikely to have a huge impact on the RS life so the effect of lies and deception on the PI's part in this area, for personal gain, wouldn't be as long lasting and severe.

          However, it's just plain unethical, in my opinion, to lie or be manipulative and passive-aggressive to one's subordinates over something as grave as their salary and livelihood. (and the fact that the liar might themselves be tenured and thus have total job security while messing with the employees by playing on their job insecurity, makes my stomach churn even more ).

  • GradStudentAbroad says:

    Aside from the ethical implications, there is a practical question of whether artificially creating more insecurity will actually achieve the desired result of making the research scientist write, and at what cost to that person's mental health and the morale of the group as a whole. A decision like that affects a lot more people than just RS, including RS's significant other and family, and also potentially everyone else who works with that scientist, especially, but not only if they are aware of the situation. For example, others may come to the conclusion that employees are considered to be disposable and completely interchangeable objects by the PI, rather than what they actually are, which is highly trained, dedicated human beings. The long-term cost to group productivity overall might be much greater than any possible short-term benefit. RS might think so, too, especially if s/he suspects or later discovers that the other funding source was available all along.

    @DrugMonkey: replacing RS has opportunity costs and risks, too! A new person, no matter how good they are, will normally need some time (let's say 6-12 months) to become fully productive. Also, why force people to do things they are not good at and don't enjoy rather than encouraging and allowing them to focus on the things they do best if possible?

    FSP: You present a false dichotomy: Tell RS and get no output or don't tell RS and hope the insecurity leads to output. I don't believe this is representative of reality: there have to be more options.

    What about telling RS about the funding and in the same conversation making it clear that you expect more writing to be accomplished while using that funding? What about then asking RS what s/he thinks would realistic goals for writing output and what s/he thinks would help him/her reach those goals? What about constructing a plan together for how to accomplish this? And are there ways to help RS deal with writer's block? Why not team up RS with someone who is more motivated and skilled at writing and have them collaborate on the writing process? What about suggesting that RS do some work on a current paper or proposal in a writing retreat or workshop?

    What happened to the claim that modern science is done in teams?

  • Angela says:

    From personal experience job insecurity has not been a publication motivator, more a motivator to look at alternative professions which provide less job insecurity and a distracting source of worry, however, I realise that this would vary from person to person. If you haven't sat down with your research scientist already and directly told them that their writing output is insufficient, this might be the first place to start. Your research scientist might need a bit more structure and demand from the writing phases. Maybe its a case of getting started, or perfectionism, or feeling incapable of writing, or not feeling that their research is of a good enough standard to publish, which is hindering them. In any case it could be helpful prod the process along initially, to say you want an outline, intro, conclusion, discussion section, whatever, by a certain time and if you haven't received it, ask them what the hold up is. It would probably be in both your best interests to iron out exactly what is holding them back from writing and work on getting past this barrier.

    • rknop says:

      Likewise. Funding insecurity for me was the beginning of a death spiral. The inability to get grants killed my motivation to publish.

      • iGrrrl says:

        Yet, on the flip side, publishing is a major way to support your grant applications. Reviewers want to see that there is a high likelihood that investing grant dollars in a proposed project will pay off in new knowledge added to the field. The only way the field gets that new knowledge is if it's published.

        I agree with your comment above with a major caveat. You said, "...make sure that the RS knows that in future jobs he may not be able to cut it without writing the papers and grants." The caveat is this: part of the supervisor's role in training someone is not just to tell them they need to write papers and grants, but to mentor them through the process. The best way to "make sure the RS knows" doesn't involve just telling them it's important. The mentoring on successfully writing papers and grants cannot be done if the RS doesn't write anything to begin with.

  • Fred says:

    If it were me, I personally would re-define the RS's job description to not require doing things he very obviously does not want to do. if he has valuable technical expertise that's hard to find, then why not take full advantage of this and "allow" him to spend all his time doing technical work since he obviously prefers that anyway. And if it means you have to do "his" paper writing and proposal writing "for" him, why not instead see it as he is generating that much more data and results (by not spending that time doing writing himself) and also likely benefitting you in other ways by his increased presence in the lab. He could be greatly benefitting you by giving your students and postdocs more training and assistance in their projects by virtue of the extra time he spends in the lab.

    It's not always possible to tailor make jobs for people and it's not always desirable unless you really want to keep this employee because of his technical expertise, but academia is one of the best environments to be flexible like this because of how much freedom PI's are given to run their labs however they want.

    However if you are very sure that you do want him to do paper- and proposal writing, then stand firm in this and hold him accountable to it, be consistent in your expectations and communicate to him not just that he "should" do it, but that you are actually very displeased with him that he is not doing it. In jobs where an employee is responsible for multiple tasks or projects or functions, they need to know how much of a priority something is, not just that it's on the table of list of things to do "at some point."

    And then how about telling him you do have funding for him - because it is the truth - but tell him if he doesn't do the rest of the job you want, then you will reduce his appointment to a 50% appointment because you don't want him to be spending more than half his time in the lab so that's all you're going to pay for if lab work is all he is going to do. his motivation to do the writing or not is up to him, the funds are there to pay his full salary if he so chooses to do the full job he's supposed to be doing. If he doesn't do half of the job, you will make better use of those funds that cover half his salary. you're still paying him for the other half of the job that he IS doing well, which you want to retain. But at least this way you can be honest and upfront, and I think it presents a fairer situation to the employee

    I really don't think you should try to manipulate him and tell him lies or half-truths in hopes that he will do what you want but while concealing the real story and your real motivations, I think it's unethical to mislead people and play on their emotions to get them to do what you want. I think it's better to be transparent and honest and tell him where you stand and where he stands so he can have all the information to make his own decisions (like whether or not he really doesn't want to do the writing).

  • Anonymous says:

    I second GradStudentAbroad's advice. I'm a postdoc, and the threat of nonfunding and unemployment is omnipresent and so powerful that extra reminders are never, ever helpful. I am dramatically more productive in all parts of my job when I feel encouragement and support from my boss. You and your postdoc would probably do better in the long run if you addressed the reasons behind your postdoc's reluctance to write. If your postdoc gets excited about explaining results in person, then the main reason writing isn't fun probably has something to do with fear of failure/ineffectiveness (i.e., feeling like s/he doesn't know how to communicate) or bad time management (because explaining things well usually takes several passes).

  • Joseph says:

    "What happened to the claim that modern science is done in teams?"

    It's more or less gone on the wayside, along with decent pay for professionals.

    Clearly, postdocs are nothing more than human resources, to be replaced with another, hopefully less defective part if they are not entirely satisfactory.

    Man I'm getting bitter.

  • Female Post-doc says:

    The PI should have a talk with the RS. In the "real world" there are annual (at least) reviews and expectations set up from both perspectives; there are expectations that must be met. Period. To keep your job. Maybe this situation calls for a bit of "real world" management?

    I, for one, often take a while (too long?) to sit down to write. When I do sit down, I have been thinking about what to write quite a bit, so I can crank out some decent text. Maybe RS needs mentoring to figure out how to best approach this part of the work.

    • Keith says:

      I absolutely agree with Female Post-doc. The original post seems to really avoid conflict with the postdoc/RS, but it seems like you're considering letting them go without any feedback (which is much worse than a sit-down). If you're lucky, maybe they just had a misconception about your expectations.

      On a side note, I can somewhat sympathize with the postdoc/RS. The thrill of research is the experimentation and work. I feel like passion for scientific experimentation isn't really encouraged much these days. But of course you have to pay the bills.

  • Kaija says:

    The team approach mentioned by GSA sounds logical to me...pair up the data monkey who is weak at writing with a writing chimp who is not a whiz at bench work and have them collaborate, share strengths, and coach the other. I don't like the idea of motivating through insecurity for two reasons: a) I don't think that the most positive results come from negative stimuli, and b) there is enough insecurity in research life as it is without creating more.

    Most professionals are not "the whole package" early on but work towards that goal through continuous improvement and bringing up our weak points little by little. Good coaching and mentoring by providing guidance, setting small goals, feedback that includes encouragement as well as criticism, and eventual success will feed on itself most of the time. Of course this does take time and effort from the PI, but then the PI needs to honestly decide how much mentoring and professional development he or she wants to do vs. hiring employees who can be plugged into the research machine. Part of me thinks that what most PIs want is a fully trained, "whole package" mature research scientist who can crank out data, pubs, and grant proposals with very little supervision but who is willing to work for the pay of a junior postdoc!

    And hey, it's ok to want...we all want stuff. But I hear a lot of disgruntlement from PIs who think their wants are entitlements.

  • Jon says:

    This makes me very glad I am a postdoc at a lab rather than in academia. I am funded primarily through "programmatic" funds but have the freedom to write up some of my unpublished thesis research, plus find other scientific projects that are funded, plus write my own proposals. There is somebody down the hall who is an absolute wizard at paper writing. Someone else is very good with proposals (and has learned from the tops in the field.) I am very happy to help them with their technical work. They help me with writing my papers and proposals. We all get better at everything. I have not, sadly, seen this same level of cooperation in an academic environment. I hope it exists.

    Re: insecurity as a motivator: it sure doesn't work on me. I am much happier moving out of my comfort zone if I have support than if I'm thrown into the deep end. It probably depends on the postdoc.

  • Ro says:

    The feasibility of working as a team varies from field to field. In my discipline, it is difficult (if not impossible) to get funding for technicians. By shunting the RS to a "Technician" classification, if that is even allowed under FSP's grant (which would depend on the whims of their program manager), a false sense of security may be generated.

    • Ro says:

      I meant to add that there is an additional reason to encourage the RS to write. If the work he is doing is really "plug and chug", i.e., just turning the crank on equipment or data processing routines that are well established in the literature, then perhaps it's fine to just "turn out data". Someone else can write it up. But if RS is doing anything innovative, then the process of writing up and going through review is an important step in understanding the results himself. If you can't distill your results into a publication, then that may mean you don't yet know how to place it in the context of other advances within your field.

      This is all in addition to the fact that if RS is being paid on grants, then the funding agencies (public or private) deserve and demand to see results.

  • GradStudent says:

    I am not a fan of deliberately creating insecurity. Presumably both PI and RS are adults, and thus should be able to communicate directly with each other about problems, like GradStudentAbroad commented. It's not that I think everybody should be allowed to do their own thing and "why are we putting everyone in boxes" etc., since that strikes me as being too idealistic --it's more the subterfuge that bothers me. It seems patronizing to RS, in addition to being somewhat cruel.

    Also, since the PI has only just now discovered that they can fund the RS, does that mean the RS entered the lab with that level of financial insecurity to begin with? If so, it seems possible that the existing insecurity was what led to the apparent lack of motivation (eg if RS is the type of person who gets paralyzed by anxiety).

  • becca says:

    You are the boss, it is your money, you can choose to tell the RS that they need to get X writing done in order to be funded at Y rate. You can choose to tell the RS that they need to get X writing done to keep their job. It is your responsibility to decide if this person is worth keeping around if they do no writing. If so, don't offer the ultimatum. If not, offer them a deal where they can change their job function and stay employed.
    At the same time, you have an obligation to get them the resources they need to become a better writer. Sometimes that means spending more time personally with drafts. Sometimes that means talking to them to figure out what the motivational challenges are (maybe they are just overwhelmed by bench work, and you can help them reallocate their energies). Sometimes people just need help getting started or unstuck- pull out a taperecorder or notepad and just have a conversation with them- then give them that, and they've got an outline. Sometimes there are grantwriting workshops and so on that are a good use of time. It will always mean extensive communication with them to figure out where the snag is.
    However, you owe them honesty. You need to tell them exactly what the funding situation *is* and what you think it *will* be in the future and what it *might* be in the future if they do not start writing.
    There are sometimes situations where a boss might not owe their employees anything less than complete honesty. This isn't one of them.

  • ADA says:

    While most have commented on how insecurity doesn't help them produce more, I would like to point out a smaller percentage of researchers who do not feel the oppressive job insecurity in academia, but obliviously charge on, without taking stock. I am not saying most academics are not already stressed out about their career, but a small percentage manage to survive in academia with the opposite attitude that all will be well. In my view, it is unusual that this RS came to where s/he is without having to confront the writing demon. I tell students already beginning from undergrad, it doesn't suffice that they are smart and work hard. They also need to be persistent, which means a lot of writing. here should be no illusions about it. If the RS cannot handle it, they should be steered towards a position where they can function as they do. I don't know enough about RS positions vs. technicians to suggest a concrete solution. But surely a frank conversation about the RS's writing habits and output and how this will constrain his/her future career is needed here.

    If you can't/don't/won't write, you can still be a scientist. But not all avenues are open to you and your mentor needs to make sure you understand what is at stake. Perhaps you don't want that kind of career anyway, but all needs to be explicit.

    As for the "one size fits all" model: I agree an individual may succeed even if they do not fit the mold of "ideal scientist". They may miss some elements of the ideal and still succeed. Writing is not one of those skills.

  • Joseph says:

    I should mention that for me employment insecurity is a big motivator--to find another job. I'm in a similar situation--if the grant we're re-competing for comes through, I could conceivably still stay employed here for a number of other years. I'm not waiting.

    Finding another job takes significant resources if it's going to succeed in the current market, and will definitely detract from their work, in addition to being a high risk they'll get a job elsewhere and you'll *have* to find someone else. Maybe that's not a problem for you--you get rid of them without firing them. Personally, it strikes me as passive-aggressive. Just buckle down and have The Talk with them and use the continued employment funding as the honey part of the attracting the fly to the task.

    • Joseph says:

      (And if they're facing being out of a job in the very near future without looking for a job, they're a fool)

  • anon says:

    If the RS truly has a post-doctoral appointment, the PI has a responsibility to TRAIN this post-doc. If writing is the weakness, then the PI should ensure that this person attends writing workshops (if they are available) or somehow do a better job at mentoring to improve this person's writing skills. Job stability is irrelevant to this problem, and I think post-docs or anyone in any position in an academic lab has a right to know how long they can expect to stay there. I have a post-doc whose writing skills needed attention. I told her that learning to write is like learning to play a musical instrument (this is an ESL person). Most people can't expect to generate perfect coherent writing at first, but can get better with time and practice. Her writing has improved a lot after attending workshops and getting some coaching from me.

    The bottom line is that there are ways to motivate this person other than through deception.

  • anontoo says:

    Most of the commenters don't seem to understand that a post-doc is not really an employee. As Anon 13:05 commented, a post-doc is a trainee. A bigger issue than the post-doc not pulling his own weight is that post-docs are by design (often mandated by the university), time-limited and thus the post-doc is going to be looking for a new job no matter how much funding FSP has. If this post-doc is to compete for another position, he must do these other parts of the job or change the type of job he is looking for (e.g. technician, not post-doc). This is a critical part of this equation. I myself have not told a post-doc about funding that could extend their time in my lab because staying was not in her best interests and I didn't want to give her an easy way out.

    • yul says:

      "I myself have not told a post-doc about funding that could extend their time in my lab because staying was not in her best interests and I didn't want to give her an easy way out."

      Why don't you tell your postdoc about the funding that could extend her time, tell her clearly or try to persuade her why you think it's not in her best interests to stay in spite of it being possible, and then let HER make the decision for herself of what's in her best interests or not??? how do you know that, if she were to stay on for another year, a breakthrough may happen in her experiments, or she may form a fruitful collaboration etc. She's an adult, why not give her ALL the information as well as your personal take on the situation and then let her decide what to do with her life?

      If you flat out don't want to spend that money on her and would rather use it to hire a new postdoc or what not, then you should tell her that too, otherwise what if she leaves thinking, "I had to leave the lab because my advisor said there was no more how come this new guy just showed up? I thought there was no funding?" your reputation among potential postdocs as a desirable advisor to work with may go downhill..

      My PhD advisor many years ago had a long-term postdoc who wanted to stay on. He was very capable and the advisor relied heavily on him. After several years though, the advisor did tell the postdoc that it's really not in his best interests to remain a postdoc and he (the advisor) recommends leaving. The postdoc still wanted to stay on for personal reasons unrelated to career (spouse/family couldn't relocate, and he couldn't find any other job in this city). So the advisor let him stay on all the while reminding him that this has reached the point of becoming a dead-end job. Being supported entirely on grants means never getting a salary raise, never having any hope of reaching the salary level of other equivalently-trained professionals, never having job security, always being treated by the other faculty in the department as a second class citizen etc. Eventually that postdoc did find a different job. But the advisor didn't take it upon himself to make that decision for him as to when and how by with holding information, because the postdoc is an adult and should be treated respectfully as such.

      now, it is a different case if the advisor WANTS to get rid of a postdoc. My same advisor has done that before, but he was honest and told the postdoc(s) he fired that he was firing them because he was displeased with their lack of progress and felt they were not suited to his lab.

  • msphd says:

    I agree with GSA and Becca. Be supportive and TEACH this person how to self-motivate and get the work done. Get them the mentoring help they need from someone else if you cannot provide it yourself.

    Do NOT coddle them, do NOT threaten them, do NOT rewrite their job title to make exceptions for them.

    The idea of deliberately using false job insecurity as a motivator seems manipulative and assholish to me. This is EXACTLY what's wrong with academia - that this is even an option. It illustrates the complete lack of transparency in a system that is largely taxpayer and patient-advocate funded. I find it completely disgusting.

    Having said all that, I find it VERY difficult to believe there aren't PLENTY of other people who DO bring the whole package and would HAPPILY take over this person's position and churn out well-written papers and grants. Maybe I'm just projecting since I'm one of these underutilized, highly overqualified people who can't find an appropriate position!

    I am so sick of hearing stories about these dysfunctional but supposedly talented people. IMO, these people probably got coddled through their PhDs in the first place. How does someone like this publish papers in grad school and write a thesis, if they're so dysfunctional in the writing department?

    I've seen it happen and I don't think it's fair to students who do all their own writing and are motivated to move up and take on all the responsibilities appropriate to ascending job titles.

    Sure, this person probably should be in a Staff Scientist position rather than a Research Scientist position, if such a distinction exists. Yes, there are ways to create positions like this where you can have someone who is basically a SuperTech, PhD. Yes, we probably should do that.

    But someone needs to make that clear to this person, and this person needs to decide if they want to get their emotional/mental shit together or not.

    Meanwhile, this PI probably should take an ethics course or five. I can only imagine how they manipulate reviewers if this is how they treat their own trainees.

  • Science Professor says:

    I am pretty sure that the PI has tried a lot of different (positive, mentoring) methods to encourage/help the RS with writing, and that the scenario described in the question for discussion is a last resort.

    I agree about the team approach to science and that not everyone has to excel at everything, but writing is pretty fundamental. If someone can't/won't write, then it probably would be best to be in a job with different requirements; something like the SuperTech that Ms. PhD mentions.

    It's important to note also that the people involved in this scenario are not in the life sciences (although I didn't specify that) and there probably isn't a large and deep pool of candidates with the skill set of the non-writing RS. For me, that is an essential part of the dynamic of the situation described.

    • engineer says:

      Then it looks like the nerd under the rock has got the boss over the barrel. If you *really* need his skills in the long run, soft pressure is probably your only option, unless you're actually willing to follow through on threats of a paycut and can deal with the contingency of the guy bolting for greener pastures.

  • There seem to be two main options: treat the postdoc as a trainee and get them the writing instruction/support they need, or treat the postdoc as an employee and change the job classification to match the job being done. Ultimately neither may be really feasible—there are people with writer's block so bad that it requires serious psychiatric support just to get them out of depression, much less able to write, and there are funding sources that will support trainees but will not support permanent employee positions.

    I have had to deal with writer's block in myself, in my family, and among my grad students (not to mention the one postdoc I've had). Some have ways to overcome the writer's block, some have managed to struggle along producing just enough writing, and some have been crushed by it. I've not yet found a way that reliably produces good results. The worst approach seems to be adding pressure—that generally just makes the writing block bigger (at least it does for me—I can write fluff like this comment with no difficulty, but I can't get myself to write something really important, like a grant proposal).

  • GMP says:

    I know a senior, well-funded PI who has an RS like what FSP describes: technically brilliant, very unique skills, with an insurmountable barrier to writing. The RS has been an RS (a staff scientist) for more than a decade now, and the PI has long ago given up on trying to get the RS to write.

  • anon2 says:

    I think there's no problem whatsoever about witholding information about the funding situation. Our administrators rarely reveal all the budget details in our departments and institutions, and there's a reason for it. However, you should not mislead, and when asked directly, you should be truthful. So the onus is also on RS to get informed.

  • SLAC prof says:

    Wow, I would love to just decide that I didn't want to do part of my job and then not be required to do it. Last time I checked, reporting the results of your experiments is the last part of the scientific method. I say that it is time for some "grow up" and do the parts of your job that you don't like. This sounds like a clear maturity issue and it will be good for the RS to learn how to function through things they don't like.

  • msphd says:

    FSP, I think the belief that someone's skills are somehow more unique because they are not in the life sciences is perhaps a bit narrow-minded.

    Conversely, just because some of us are life scientists does not mean we are easily replaced, (although the culture of our field would have you think that there is a large, deep pool of identical life scientists to choose from).

    If I were this PI, I would probably be better off spending my time hunting for the one or two other people in the world who can do with this person can do, and find out what it would take to recruit them or one of their trainees. It can't hurt to ask around.

    Any time I've fallen into the trap of thinking 'this is the only person who can do this for me', and my research has been delayed by all of that person's foibles, I later realized I could have found another way to get the same work done faster (though it probably would have cost more money). This has happened to me more than once, because I didn't have the funding to seek other options.

    This PI clearly has some funding options, so I think looking elsewhere might be the best investment.

  • Professor Z says:

    I don't think this was a narrow thing to say. It rings true, in my experience. People in bio sciences are always talking about how there is an oversupply of talented people (as msphd notes as well).

    I have no trouble believing that a particular research scientist is in fact not replaceable without a significant amount of training time for the replacement. That replacement time (perhaps even on the scale of years) might not be feasible.

  • icee says:

    My postdoc husband has this problem. He does excellent research and makes gorgeous plots and figures, but struggles with the prose. He dislikes writing so much that he becomes truly depressed. In grad school, he gave his advisor drafts, and his advisor likely kept the science content and re-wrote most of the prose throughout the back-and-forth, therefore publishing was fairly painless (for my husband, at least). His postdoc advisor refuses to do this, which would be okay, if he'd at least work with him a bit more, as he is really trying quite hard.

    His postdoc advisor refuses to even edit his papers. He merely looks at the draft, tells him to start from scratch and rewrite the whole thing again (but the data are great! and the figures are great!) For one paper in particular, he has completely rewritten it 3 times, but still nothing from his advisor except pressure to rewrite again, and fast. He is so discouraged that it's become a major problem for his mental health. His advisor also told him he refuses to write him job reference letters until he's done with all his pubs. He spends a lot of time on each rewrite and he gets sent back to square one. He's trying but not getting anywhere, and it's preventing him from working on his research. I think it's unfair, and he doesn't even want to be a PI. He wants to teach at an undergrad institution. What's so wrong with his advisor taking on a bit more of the editing, since he's having such a hard time with it? It's not a training issue, as he completed an excellent education and is an avid reader - I think he's truly incapable of being an expert writer. Is there not a place in science for such people?

  • ZooX says:

    There is all this talk about how the postdoc supervisor has to mentor the RS in writing, but in my opinion, the RS should already have learned the skills and figured out how to self-motivate on writing. When someone hires a postdoc or RS, the expectation is that this person can and will write. If there is a writing problem, the postdoc/RS should deal with it -- seek a writing center for assistance, a tutor, a writing group, whatever. The supervisor should certainly read the RS's manuscripts and provide input, but it is not the RS's responsibility to teach the RS to write.

  • anon says:

    Zoox, ideally, I also think it should be that way (ie, anyone in a post-doc position should already know how to write). Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who get pushed through the system who have been able to have this (and possibly other skills) 'taken care of' for them. icee (@17:38) summarized her husband's experience as one example of this (at least for the writing).

    @ icee - has your husband looked into seeing a writing consultant? or tutor? It may be well worth the investment for him. If his writing is the source of his depression, it seems that it could be fixed. If his interest is in teaching, how can he expect to do that if he himself has trouble with his own writing?

  • ZooX says:

    True, but I bet the problem with writing wasn't mentioned in the letters of recommendation or anywhere in the research scientist's application materials. I think people are too quick to put the responsibility on the PI for awesome writing mentoring, especially if this has been an intractable (and undisclosed) problem up to this point.

  • icee says:

    My husband is doing much better with his writing than he used to, and he's making progress as he seeks out help for it, but it's one of those things I don't think he'll ever be great at. He's a great chemist, and he communicates his work very well, except with prose.

    Some people have a tough time with computers. Some people suck at art (me). Some people give horrible slide and poster presentations. Some people wear dreadful clothes and will never have fashion sense. They may be able to improve in these things dramatically, but some people will just kind of suck at them no matter how hard they try to improve. All of these things could be argued as being essential skills for scientists. BUT, unlike a physicist who sucks at math, these things have no effect on the science performed. They are merely skills that scientists use to COMMUNICATE their science to others. Why should a scientist who is good at science, and struggles only with one aspect of communication (he is not unwilling to do it or horrible at it, mind you) be chastized or even driven out of science because of it, especially when he's trying really hard to get better at it?

    I don't think that everyone is capable of great writing, no matter how much training they get, just as not everyone has the intellect for other things. We're not talking novelists or english lit majors here, we're talking about engineers and biology majors. Yes, everyone should get the training, and make the effort. But why should all the scientists be expected to be great writers? Some otherwise great scientists are NEVER going to be good writers.

    • TK says:

      can your husband give good talks or presentations? giving talks is another required job function for working scientists and shares many similar requirements as writing papers.

      scientists don't have to be 'great' or even "good" writers. They just need to be competent. the arrangement your husband had with his grad advisor (where his advisor did the writing for him) is not tenable for the long term such as over the course of an entire career. Unless he always can rely on his co-authors to do the writing, that might work (but then many people believe that if a co-author writes up the whole paper then they should get bumped up to first author. so this would mean your husband never having another first-authored paper for the rest of his life..?)

      maybe your husband is competent at the writing but his postdoc advisor is being unreasonable and nitpicky to the extreme??

  • iWrite says:

    Great writers? No, that would be unreasonable. Writers? Yes, that is part of the job description. If you don't/can't write, don't take a job that requires you to do so and then say "But you can't expect me to write papers and proposals because I can't do everything."

  • anon2 says:

    Ever heard of the phrase, "publish or perish"?

  • Anonymous says:

    ZooX - Oh, I see, by the time we're postdocs, we're supposed to already be proficient at everything and not need any more training. Hmmm, I wonder why we get paid as if we're still trainees then?

  • ZooX says:

    That would be too extreme an interpretation of my opinion. I think that someone who has obtained a PhD should be able to write. Presumably this individual wrote the papers that arose from their PhD and on which they are primary author? If they needed substantial help to write the papers and are not operating independently or well in writing, that should be noted in the letter of reference.

    I have hired some postdocs knowing in advance that they did not write well or often, but at least I knew what I was getting and could work with that. I want to know what skills someone has and what they need help with or need to learn from scratch before I hire them. I would not hire a postdoc who had such a major problem with writing that they wouldn't/couldn't write at all.

  • Anonymouse says:

    I would just add, as someone who recently left a somewhat toxic job situation which partly stemmed from an academic supervisor's avoidance of contract renewal until the last month of contracts (yes, well after the academic job market season):

    Job insecurity for me was an extreme *de*motivator. At least, the stress levels made it extremely difficult to make progress on writing, even on papers that would have assisted in finding new jobs more easily.

    Now that I am feeling happy in a new job with a supportive advisor who reassured me early on that my contract would be renewed, I am being vastly more productive (including both proposal and paper writing).

  • Postdoc says:

    I currently have a few months left of my contract. I have written papers in my previous position and have applied for one grant in this position (still waiting for the result). Now I am asked to apply for more funding, which I would be more than happy to do if i would be sure that when the answer comes I am still around. The problem is that if my contract is not extended before, I probably won't and I can't see that I would leave a new position to come back. I have very good results, but I am not sure that the technique I am using is supported by the lab head. I have tried to push for an answer, but hasn't got any information. I know my situation is a little different, but generally I think insecurety is demotivating and costly as people need to spend time searching for a back-up plan.

    • chris says:

      job insecurity makes people feel un-invested in their current job. It makes people become very near-term focused.

      For creative people like scientists, this kills creativity. Many types of research requires long-term thinking or planning. Projects take time to execute. collaborations take time to build. By now, from having been bounced from lab to lab, project to project, due to contract issues, to me, a "long term" project is one that lasts more than a year! It is hard to come up with new and innovative and high impact research and do it in one year. If you don't know if you will be around in 6-12 months, you will tend to focus your efforts elsewhere and not take scientific or intellectual risks because you simply can't afford to. Trying to build collaborations without knowing if you will still be around in 6-12 months, seems disingenuous to your collaborators because you're making commitments to other people that you honestly know there's a chance you can't keep.

      job insecurity also makes it harder to get proposals funded (with you as the investigator I mean) which is ironic because getting funding is an oft-touted way to "make" your institution want to make a commitment to you and thereby increase your job security. I was told, if I can bring in funding, my contract renewal will be more likely.

      But, I couldn't obtain funding because program managers don't want to make commitments to an investigator who may not even still be employed by their institution in 6-12 months. chicken and egg problem.