Graduate training: Choosing a n00b vs. a greybeard

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I hope that you have been to BenchFly, the brainchild of Dr. Alan Marnett, third-generation chemist and chemical biologist. Founded in Cambridge, MA, in 2009, Benchfly is a highly-functional and beautifully-designed site for the practicing scientist, directed primarily toward those developing their scientific chops (and for more, uh, senior folks looking for a methods tune-up). Based around a core of open-access instructional video protocols on techniques from how to prepare a sample for NMR to siRNA transfection to how to unlock a jammed Beckman J2-21 centrifuge, BenchFly also addresses cultural aspects of the scientific life with the input of a growing community of interdisciplinary scientists that range from undergraduates to department chairs. Chemists will fully appreciate the video on how to pronounce "Hoechst" after hearing it mangled by American biologists who use the company's fluorescent intercalating DNA dyes (solution: ask a German scientist!). And at the conclusion of their nicely-crafted mission and values statement comes this:
"We believe the only thing more powerful than Chemistry is Chuck Norris. Period."
BenchFly also has had contests for best design of a personal lab landing page and routinely catalyzes career discussions through their blog. On Monday, Alan put up a post asking a crucial question of relevance to the first-year graduate student:
If you were picking a lab, would you be more or less likely to work for an assistant professor (eg, non-tenured)?
The post ends with that as a survey question but Alan's analogy to a racetrack outing with his old lab nicely frames the question. The discussion there has been fairly balanced and the survey results are currently running with a slight 52-48 percent edge for the benefits of working with an assistant professor over a tenured full professor (apologies to my women colleagues for use of the term "greybeard" but I use it pejoratively to reflect my dismay at the current paucity of women in senior scientific positions). I picked a n00b I can offer my own perspective at 25 years out from choosing a freshly-minted assistant professor who wasn't even at my graduate institution when I came to interview. My mentor, Tom Rowe, came to the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Florida from a postdoc with Leroy Liu at Johns Hopkins. There, he worked to identify type II DNA topoisomerases as the target of anticancer drugs like doxorubicin (Adriamycin), the epipodphyllotoxins etoposide and teniposide, and the experimental aminoacridines. It was in Tom's lab was where I first gained my molecular biology skills while also bearing witness to The Awesome Power of Natural Products. I've been playing phone-tag with Tom over the last couple of weeks so I wanted to write this post before we had a chance to catch up - this way my recollections will not be clouded by his perceptions of those wonderful old days. The advantage of working for a fresh, new assistant professor was that he was at the top of his research game - he had great papers in JBC and Science and possessed the fire and motivation to do what it takes to get that first grant. What I remember most and value most highly was the intense, personal attention I got from Tom during our brainstorming sessions in his office where an hour could become three hours. And once Tom accepted me into his laboratory, I knew that he had a vested interest in my success. Not that large labs don't - as Tom's first graduate student with only a senior technician he inherited as the other person in the lab, I knew that I wasn't going to get lost in the shuffle. As the only grad student in lab for a year-and-a-half or so, I was the one who got to go to meetings whenever funds became available. I went to two society meetings and one Gordon Conference each of my first two years with Tom. Whatever one may have lost in networking by working in a small, new lab, I made it up at meetings - especially the Gordon Conference on Cancer Chemotherapy. Drawbacks? Well, everything had to start almost from scratch. I did not have the luxury of being a cog in a well-oiled machine. As I look back now, being the first graduate student gave me some practice when starting my own lab - like figuring out which of the 17 versions of EDTA in the Sigma catalog I needed. I developed enzyme assays from the literature alone, learned to purify and crystallize my own substrates, and implement a two-dimensional gel electrophoresis workflow before immobilized pH gradient strips were available. As a result, I didn't exactly pump out the publications. I had one major paper from my dissertation work - one with just me and Tom in JBC - and two co-authored papers. I also felt intense pressure to not let Tom down. I knew that I was a reflection on him and I worked really hard. He also gave me much more latitude than I think I gave my students when I started my own lab. I floundered a bit but found a lot on my own. So, it was an isolating experience at times - even more isolating than grad school can sometimes seem to be - and something I now realize might not have been the best for me as a rather gregarious person. Moreover, the department had a heavy emphasis on neuroscience while I was working for only one of two faculty in cancer. So, I didn't have a lot of common resources to draw from that were shared by the neuro folks. But, then again, I credit these associations with my breadth of interests today and why you see me writing regularly about drugs of abuse. However, the lab did grow to five or six by the time I finished and we had a great core of grad students in Pharmacology and the adjoining Department of Physiology at the time. I definitely felt supported socially - even by Tom, who would regularly come to happy hour with us for oysters and beer and host us for parties at his house when he and his wife started having kids. I have mixed feelings as to whether my fellow students who worked in bigger, more established groups had better opportunities when it came to postdocs. One one hand, yes, the connections offered by senior members of faculty did help a few of my colleagues land pretty nice postdocs. But Tom's support of me going to meetings afforded me similar networking opportunities. Had I been withdrawn, I might not have taken advantage of those opportunities. Moreover, Tom was very well-liked and respected in the cancer biology community. Simply saying you worked for Tom opened launched a lot of conversations and opened doors for me. In the end, however, I can't really conclude that it's generally more advantageous to work for a junior faculty member over a more established mentor. What I think worked here was that Tom and I were a great match for one another. He gave me exactly what I needed - including a good boot in the ass when necessary - and I hope that he feels the same. I do know that I finished in four years and four months and that he earned tenure in his fifth year. I just pulled the old dissertation off the bookshelf and turned to the acknowledgements - they lead off with these two sentences that pretty much say it all:
I sincerely wish to thank my mentor, Dr. Thomas C. Rowe, for his patience, guidance, and friendship throughout my graduate training. I will always be honored to have been his first graduate student.
Yup. I still am.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Wonderful sentiments, David. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great piece as always, David. This “What I remember most and value most highly was the intense, personal attention I got from Tom during our brainstorming sessions in his office where an hour could become three hours. And once Tom accepted me into his laboratory, I knew that he had a vested interest in my success.” had a particularly familiar sound to me. I wasn’t my PIs only student when I joined, but for the last 3 years of my PhD I was 1 of 2 students and I had the undivided attention when it came to papers, meetings and just everyday brainstorming sessions. I didn’t have to chase my PI or wait in line, like I do in my postdoc lab. I am more of an individualized attention-type person and I can certainly appreciate that now that I’m out and into a lab where more than a dozen people “fight” for the boss’s attention. I wasn’t too versed in this assistant/associate vs tenured prof business, when I first started, which seeing as I am a control freak was very beneficial as I went into the lab that really called my attention, not the one where I could/would get the most publications or the one with the shiniest, most prized PI. Like you I was one of the only students doing the particular techniques and approaches in the lab and the department, so this created a very beautiful chemistry between members of my group, however few we were. If I had to go back I’d choose the same lab. While there are some drawbacks to choosing a new or new-ish PI, it was a great experience for me to have the boss’s enthusiam, attention and expertise “at my fingertips” and that to me was and is important.

  3. Thanks so much for the kind words about BenchFly David! It’s input and support from scientists like yourself that keeps us going!

    Great retrospective of your grad school decision to work for an assistant professor. You bring up an excellent point that I think helps reduce some of the possible downside of working for a less-established PI – consider your professional development up to you. Go to conferences, talk to people, form relationships. I think too many people (myself included) tend to rely on their graduate advisor for help with the next step in our careers and we all know about how the ‘eggs in one basket’ thing turns out… Moreover, the sooner we get comfortable with the idea that we’re in control (and responsible for) our own career development, the better.

    Personally, I worked for two very established PIs in grad school (co-PIs) and then rolled the dice a bit on an assistant professor as a postdoc (who got tenure shortly after I arrived). The spirit of discovery of an assistant professor can be infectious and is something I would recommend all students/postdocs at least consider.

    Thanks again for your article!

  4. Thanks, everyone! Alan, I started writing a comment at your post and it slowly became post-length. So, I figured I’d put it up here.

    And congratulations on implementing BenchFly. It really is a fabulous resource. I remember when video cameras became somewhat affordable in the 1990s and when I was teaching a student how to do tissue culture for the 15th time, I thought it would be great to just video the process. Alas, I lack your entrepreneurial skills!

    Dr 27, you also mentioned another interesting twist – of being one of the few students for someone at any career stage. Being one or two grad students for an established person who just doesn’t have a huge lab can also have its advantages.

    I’d be interested to run the same question for people at the postdoc level. At that point where you really need to crank out papers, there’s a much greater advantage to being in a huge, well-funded laboratory. But, again, as Alan points out, even doing a postdoc with an asst prof can still be very enriching.

  5. Interesting twist indeed, David. I think that one of the reasons my postdoc has been less than stellar is because I have to compete with so many people to get my boss’s attention. We have a gazillion spawns off of the 3 main topics in the lab, so you have to give the boss a long intro into what you were doing and how you were doing it, as it is different for every person. I’d never had to do that as in all my previous labs my PIs were very engaged in my daily or weekly activities and the moment they saw something funny we’d troubleshoot. My postdoc PI is tenured and well funded … I just find it annoying to have to “hunt” him down every time I need or want to show results, and he rarely ever comes to me, or the other grad students … well, maybe except for a very exceptional postdoc who’s leaving the lab for the TT and boss is having a hard time letting go. I wasn’t (and I’m still not) used to this amount of independence, and I’ve definitely noticed that I thrive in an environment where I can work closely with the PI, where we bounce ideas off every few days and where there’s a direct connection. I’m an ENTJ, very strong on the E and the J, which I think make for a bad combo with my PIs easy-going, super relaxed and super hand off approach.

    And yes, the size of the lab does matter. I remember when I first started in grad school how some of my labmates wanted to be in ginormous groups where they could make tons of friends and hang out after and basically be one big, happy family. I made great friends with the 5-6 peoeple I met while in my PhD lab, we formed a close bond, we helped each other … but my boss’s approach was very hands on and very dedicated to one’s success in a direct manner. I think that if a student is like me, and he or she finds him/herself in a big lab where they don’t get much attention and are brushed off to make room for other people, that does seem to contribute to their failure, regardless of the PIs position in the ladder.

    It’s a very tricky situation and it’s hard to judge when you’re new and know very little about the PI, the lab and the personality of the group, however big or small it is.

  6. I did my PhD with a n00b where the number of people in the lab was n=2. He had a high teaching load so I operated on an almost autonomous basis with my research. Graduated with 5 first author papers, 2 reviews and a couple of co-authored papers.

    Chose to do my postdoc with an up-and-coming ex-n00b and we’re still pushing out the gazillions of papers from my 4 years in his lab. He’s on the fast-track to superstardom both at Postdoc U and Big Ass Professional Society and he’s pulling out all the stops to make sure I’m on the same bus.

    Bottom line: working with n00bs and/or emerging superstars can be an amazing opportunity. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

  7. @Dr 27 – Your experiences also point out the the attitude of the PI can make a big difference, a factor that may be of even greater importance than the size of the lab or seniority of the PI.

    @PiT – Of course, my guess is that it’s your attitude, intelligence, and work ethic that have endeared n00b and up-and-coming ex-n00b to you. I’d be interested, however, in whether the up-and-coming-ness of your postdoc advisor was evident when you selected the lab. Were you more astute than others or was it that you weren’t put off by his non-senior stature?

  8. I’d be interested, however, in whether the up-and-coming-ness of your postdoc advisor was evident when you selected the lab.

    I mistakenly typed that I “chose” to work with Up-And-Coming Ex-N00b … it was blind luck and stupidity that got me into his lab. I came to work with Established PI who was heading a PPG and after I arrived was told I was working with Up-And-Coming Ex-N00b. I had no idea what was going on and just agreed but in hindsight it was a great stroke of luck. Sometimes luck and stupidity pay off.