Some discussion regarding the decision to train or not to train in the lab of an assistant professor (read: not-yet-tenured) caught my attention on the Tweets yesterday. BenchFly has a poll up on this matter (with the cutest picture of a little kid in a labcoat), but the poll (and post) don’t take into consideration the career goals or stage of the trainee…which are both incredibly important factors to take into consideration. So, of course, I had to weigh in.
The likelihood that an assistant professor will be a good mentor is probably similar to the likelihood of a tenured associate or full professor to be a good mentor. BUT, if you want to pursue a tenure-track position yourself, I would highly recommend looking into more established investigators for your postdoctoral training. For one, the track record of the PI is incredibly important when considering their ability to boost you into a TT career, and young PIs don’t have a track record to analyze. Second, a young PI may not have the ability to grant a TT-aspiring postdoc the necessary freedom to develop their own independent project or (*gulp*) take a developed project away. I sure as hell won’t be in this position for years to come – maybe ever.
Somewhat related, I wrote a post last summer on the importance of pedigree in an academic career, and I thought it fitting to re-post for those considering postdoc positions.
An acquaintance of mine just got the pink sheets (summary statement) on her first R01. It was not discussed, but the scores were decent (several 1s and 2s, a few 3s, a couple of 4s). The major problem was her publication rate, which she herself wouldn’t argue against. Other than that, the reviewers didn’t really have major problems with the grant. The preliminary data was good and the plan was solid. So it’s not really clear what she should fix, except try to publish a couple more papers before resubmitting. The overwhelming feeling she came away with is the reviewers just didn’t “like” her. She can wait a couple of rounds before resubmitting and get a couple more papers out, but will that make her more “likable”? Or is this a lost cause?
This situation seems to be a hidden issue in the funding field; that is, the lack of a pedigree can put you pretty low on the priority list for shallow NIH coffers. Said applicant has trained as a physician-scientist in a well-regarded lab, although outside of her chosen field, has a few solid publications that she’s squeezed out between clinical service, and has developed good collaborations from funded, tenured profs in her field. But she hasn’t trained in a big-name lab from her own field, and she doesn’t have big-name collaborations or GM (glamor mag) papers. And she now fears that these factors may be the death of her young, burgeoning research program.
So what is a pedigree good for? Well, to begin with, let’s remember that the desire for a pedigree is not necessarily an unfair standard. A strong pedigree usually indicates that you’ve trained under world-class scientist(s), interacted with some of the most brilliant young minds, and had your hands on the newest, hottest techniques and developments in your field. In fact, I’d argue that a pedigree is much more than a record of where you’ve been…a strong pedigree has the potential to provide knowledge, exposure, and experience that others in not-as-big-name labs might not have. That being said, a good pedigree does not guarantee a good scientist; only time will tell if a good pedigree will have the intended positive impact on any individual.
So the moral of the story? Well, I wouldn’t say that grad students thinking about postdocs should only consider the name on the letterhead. In fact, you should take into account a whole host of factors, including the prof’s philosophy on work and life, how happy his lab minions are, and where past postdocs in that lab have ended up. If you’re interested in an academic career, however, I would argue that pedigree is just as important as these other factors. You don’t have to shoot for the biggest name out there, but a well-respected, tenured faculty member in your desired field can really give your career legs.
Bottom line: a good pedigree opens doors. What you do when you go through those doors is up to you.