The Plight of the Post-Doc


Does your PI do your PR?

In case "PR" has some scientific meaning that's either not occurring to me or is relevant only in fields with which I'm not well-acquainted, I'm talking about Public Relations, here.  I've been thinking about this a lot, lately--the role of the PI in "advertising" his or her trainee, especially when the trainee is getting close to the next phase, be it grad student to post-doc, or post-doc to junior faculty.  I mean, it's in everyone's best interest for us to move onward and upward, right?  So why aren't they all selling the shit out of us?  Or if you're a PI, why aren't you selling the shit out of your trainees?  Or are you?

I'm not talking about writing letters of recommendation, here; everyone does that.  What I mean is, what extra things is your PI doing to show the world how great you are?  Or is this not happening?  And how do you feel about that? This is an essay question, to be answered in the comments by both trainees and PIs alike.

A couple of recent experiences have made me hyper-aware of this phenomenon.  First, I was at a small symposium in the city a couple of weeks ago.  Four really great talks, including one by my PI and one by a very famous collaborator dude (VFCD--different from the new Famous Dude I may work with soon).  My PI didn't present my work, but VFCD did.  And right before VFCD presented my work, he said, "this is the work of Dr Becca, who is over there (he points, I wave bashfully) and what she did that was really monumental was..." I mean, he actually said "monumental," which I thought was really nice of him.  I don't even know if I'd consider my work monumental, but it made me feel really good that he'd promote me like that.  Moreover, he deferred to me to answer any relevant questions after the talk, and not because he couldn't have answered them himself--VFCD is a bona fide brilliant person who has the mind-blowing ability to remember every tiny bit of data you've ever mentioned to him in the hallway or whatever.  So that was all really great.  I felt like I was being treated like an adult, having adult scientist conversations with other adult scientists, and I was so grateful to VFCD for that.

More recently, I was at a meeting in the Midwestern US (OMG $2.75 for Maker's Mark??!!??!).  During one of the talks, the speaker said, "this is the work of my post-doc ____, who is here at this meeting," and she showed a picture of this post-doc, which she continued to show a couple more times as she went through the data.  I saw this and thought, That is so smart and great!  Now people don't have to remember her name--they can just remember her face! And then they'll recognize her at future meetings, rather than having to randomly check her name tag and try and remember where they heard the name. I am so doing this when I am a PI.  Every time.

These truly small-in-effort gestures are, I think, really important for trainees.  While in the long run, we of course will (and should) bear the primary burden for promoting ourselves, you never know what a two-second mention, a photo, or a casual "monumental" here or there can really do for a person.


Gerty-Z said...

I've thought about this a lot, too. My PI when I was a postdoc was not very good at advertising-mostly because he did not like to travel and he never went out giving seminars or going to conferences. I think PR is super important. When I have trainees, I am going to do PR (aka cheerleading). And not only in talks, but in other really important ways. Like introducing them to the Big Names that come through giving seminars, doing the informal networking that gets you picked to give talks at the meetings and such. I knew going in that postdoc PI mentor would be lacking in this regard, and I worked hard to overcome it by getting in with folks like VFCD. But I agree-it is good for me as a PI if my trainees do well. So I will be advertising my ass off for them.

Anonymous said...

My advisor definitely does some PR for me (and harps on me to do my own PR as well- an important skill in academia), usually not at the level of showing pictures of me in his slides, though he does make me put a picture of myself on posters, but he does mention me quite a bit. He also makes sure that he/I announce my last name clearly (since that's what most people see in papers), have one-on-one meetings with anyone who comes through the department in a related field, and makes sure I go to dinner with every guest except the absolute most irrelevant.

GMP said...

Hi Dr Becca,

My advisor never did any cheerleading;
I have a recent postabout it. I think it's great if the advisor does PR, but it's not necessary; you can be fine without it, as long as your record and letters are strong.

Unknown said...

As I watch a talk by a PI, I always note when the PI says "I" or "we" versus "my talented grad student" or "my terrific postdoc." I reserve special respect for the PI who goes out of his/her way to note who did the work being presented, the more famous the speaker the more awesome it is to hear that person use the talk to sell his/her trainees. Now that I am a PI I put my trainee's name in the corner of each slide of his/her data, to remind me and the audience who did the work. Once, at a large conference, I even heard a very famous scientist not only point out the grad student in the audience and had her wave to the crowd, but then said "and people, she's currently looking for a post-doc." It felt like a parent trying to set their kid up with their friend's kid, and the grad student was mega-embarassed, but she probably had her pick of labs to do a post-doc!!!

Prof-like Substance said...

why aren't you selling the shit out of your trainees?

I think this is illegal in most states, and it doesn't make for great fertilizer anyway...

But as for doing PR, I always always always show pictures of my trainees (and collaborators) when I talk about their work. I have also mentioned "so and so is finishing up soon, so if you are looking for an excellent trainee...."

There is no reason beyond arrogance for PIs not to do this and in some ways it might peak the interest of other trainees looking for a lab to know that they would be given credit for their work if the went to work for Dr. PR.

Zen Faulkes said...

What do students and post-docs expect to get out of PR, particularly from a PI?

Are you hoping that people who will know you and stick up for you on a search committee, grant review panel, or editorial review?

Or something else?

What can a PI do for your career that you yourself cannot?

People both over-and underestimate what PR can do for them, so knowing what people are hoping to achieve is important.

prodigal academic said...

Nice post! I've only just started presenting work done in my group, and I do include a photo of my students, as well as mention them by name when presenting their work. Another thing I did is to advertise their posters when I was presenting their work. It is great for morale!

I think that name recognition is really important. I do a kind of really interdisciplinary, hard to categorize science, and when we move into a new area, I make sure to present it a few places while we are getting ready to publish. (A benefit to doing something really, really different is that there is a large barrier to entry and thus getting scooped is hard). That way, it doesn't look like total science fiction to people who were in the audience (and might be refereeing). I feel the same way about exposing my students to the general scientific community.

Becca said...

@PLS: Hahah eew.

Zen, really good points. I guess I feel like PR from a PI can be on its most superficial level, like a celebrity endorsement. Most people know who VFCD is, not everyone knows who I am. Just the association can help. In addition, the fact that a PI makes a special point of acknowledging you during the talk, and not just on the acknowledgments slide I think shows that they genuinely value you, which is also a good thing.

Whether this will all eventually translate to higher priority in grants, hiring, etc is of course unknown, but I think the more often your name gets spoken in public in a positive light, the better. In science, notoriety is pretty much our currency, amirite?

Candid Engineer said...

Awesome that famous collaborator would give you such nice respect during the meeting you were at.

I'm not sure how much PR I've been subject to. Strangely enough, I only ever saw my grad advisor give one talk (during my 2nd year), and we never went to a conference together. So not sure how he handled crediting trainees.

My current supervisor mentions verbally our names when discussing our slides, and puts up an acknowledgement slide at the end of the talk. Nothing phenomenal, but certainly appreciated...

Bashir said...

PR is certainly nice to get. Really it's about the PI's attitude toward the student's (or postdoc's) developing career. There are many small things that a PI can do to be helpful, whether it's a small bit of career advice or PR at the right time. Some PIs are engaged in this aspect of mentoring, others aren't.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how my PI goes about my PR. I know he brags on me...I've heard so from others in the field and within our department. But how and where this PR happens remains a mystery to me.

I've always liked the idea of posting the postdoc/student's picture on slides and giving them credit during talks...I've done this with my own graduate student. But I think there are more subtle and potent ways to promote your peeps. Just bringing a name up during casual conversation at a meeting/study section/speaker dinner could have quite the targeted impact. Something we can keep in mind as future PIs. :)

scientistinevolution said...

There is a difference between your "mentor" and your "sponsor". You might have a mentor who is very good as scientific and career advisor, but who doesn't really care much about sponsoring you outside the lab (or is not good at it). On the other hand, some other person (e.g. a senior colleague) can be your PR without necessarily mentoring you. Having both is the key, but it is important to understand that they are not necessarily the same person.

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