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The Game

"Ask Dr. Clemmons" is a monthly column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Q:     Dear Dr. Clemmons:

Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at a world-renowned research institution on the West Coast. My current research adviser is not being supportive of my immediate future plans. Briefly, I have submitted two papers for publication after having worked in his lab for 3 years. One of the papers, which had been submitted to a top-ranked research journal, came back, and the reviewers wanted an additional experiment performed. Now, my adviser wants that experiment done and one more series of experiments on top of that. These experiments would take at least 6 months to complete, maybe more. I have been trying to get my adviser to send the paper back because the experiment requested by the reviewers has been completed. Yet, he has not thus far. At the same time, I recently expressed an interest in going onto the academic job market sooner rather than later, but my adviser is not supporting this plan. He told me that he would not support my attempts to have my own lab until next year, because I should wait until the distinguished paper in question is in press. I do not know what to do. I realize letters of recommendation and publications are important for one attempting to obtain a job in the academic market. More importantly, I am not sure what my adviser will allow me to take in terms of my research (if anything) to start my own lab. Shall I wait and go on the job market next year like my adviser has suggested, or do I try to get a job without my adviser's support? Furthermore, what shall I do about a research project to take with me? I have always wanted an academic position, but I am rethinking this decision, because of my current situation. Respectfully, Ms. Ready to Fly the Coop

Dear Ms. Ready to Fly the Coop:

It seems to me as though you are not aware of The Game! It is not a good thing that it has taken you this long to find out about the game, because you may have suffered many setbacks already. Rest assured, though, that I am here to school you about the game now, and this is all that matters.

When I talk about the game in your case, I am referring to the politicization of work life . Politicization of work can be a hard thing to understand and abide by because it is not necessarily conducive to getting things done. In fact, it can often be a hindrance to progress. You see, the game is something that is present in all work situations and is comprised of entries into an unspoken rule book that was built upon the needs of the folks who originally set up the game.

To be sure, the game is something very foreign to you. Therefore, you need to learn about it and its many nuances before it gets the best of you. I think it is helpful for you to know that you are not alone and that your problem is one that is shared by many. People from all walks of life love the game, whereas many of us detest it. But in general, the game has to be played if you expect to be successful. And that's the rub.

For starters, at the risk of betraying my age, I must quote the words of the socially conscious rap group, Public Enemy. They rightfully say in a song written for the He Got Game soundtrack (movie produced by Spike Lee) that "there's a game of life and there's a 'game behind the game.' ... I got game, you got game, he got game, she got game. ..." How true. Basically, what you are experiencing is the game in action. Your postdoctoral research adviser is playing the game with you to get what he wants! Either you play along with him and get what you want and win the game, or you lose. It really is that simple. So, it seems to me that he wants the following things out of you:

  • More experiments and work he can use to advance himself before you leave his lab,

  • A paper published in a top research journal as a result of your hard work and effort during your tenure in his lab,

  • A sense of dependency from you in regard to his helping you get a new tenure-track academic position, and

  • For you to define what research of yours you can take with you, because it is all "his" work anyway.

  • My, my, what power he thinks he has over you! He thinks he holds all the cards. Although it may be arguable by some, I believe he doesn't have much power at all if you understand the game. I also know that he has even less power if you have federal or other funding for your postdoctoral salary. How can you fire or harass somebody that you're not even paying a salary to? A third party would have to be answered to in such a case, which means that game playing is at an all-time high!

    Let's start with the publication issue first. You asked me what you should do about having your paper published in a top-notch research journal sooner rather than later, because you have already finished all of the work and additional experiments required by the reviewers. Well, I think that you should have your paper published as-is, but it is going to take some game playing to get this accomplished.

    The first step is for you to realize that as first author of the paper in question, you have a lot of say in the matter. Your adviser may be running the show in general, but we all know that it is your work and your paper that we're talking about. After all, who spent all of those many days and nights laboring in the lab to get the work done? Once you realize that you have this power (which is most of the battle for most people, as it turns out), it makes the game playing easier.

    In my opinion, you should simply tell your adviser that you would like the paper to be resubmitted as-is with all of the reviewers comments addressed and nothing more. Explain your rationale to him and why his plan for the paper won't work for you. Mainly, it seems as though you do not have the time to do the experiments he is asking for because you are preparing for the academic job market. You have also indicated that you have other important areas of research that are ongoing as indicated by a second paper that's in the hopper. You probably need to spend some time wrapping up this project as well. When it's all said and done, you simply don't have time to do the additional work he wants you to do, and that's that.

    According to the rules of the game, he will most likely try to leverage his power at this point, and you must leverage yours back. If you back down, you have lost, which in this case means you could spend another year in the lab as a postdoctoral researcher instead of as principal investigator of your own laboratory. Is this what you want? If not, you had better gear up to play the game! When he comes back to make sure that you do what he wants you to do, just stand firm in your original stance. After all, it's the truth. Tell him again the many reasons why his request will not work for you and go on about your day. Continue this pattern until he gets it. You will not do any additional experiments because in your judgment they are not required and furthermore, you will spend your time doing other important tasks you deem necessary for your career, which brings us to your job-search dilemma.

    Basically, the same tactic involved with playing the game applies to your job search as it did to your efforts to have your paper published on your terms. It is imperative that you realize that you hold the big joker when it comes to your career! Just know that after three or more years in a postdoctoral position, it is your right and responsibility to search for an academic position. It is not your adviser's call to make. His attempt to hold back a reference from you is simply a game-playing tactic. Yes, it is quite likely that he may indeed hold back any proactive efforts in helping you find an academic job (ask yourself if you truly believe that he would have done anything proactive on your job search anyway), but that is not the end of the world.

    Please trust me when I say that many young faculty members have been in similar positions as yours and still found good-quality tenure-track jobs at major institutions. The ploy of holding back job-search assistance from a postdoctoral researcher in order to keep the underling from taking any of the adviser's research to their new position must be as old as time itself. Why? You are now competition! According to the game's rule book, you do not help the competition.

    To get beyond this little snafu, you must rely on any and all academic networks you have previously set up that do not include him. Also, you should realize that this problem is so common that many faculty search committees may be willing to forgo his reference anyway since they may have been in similar situations themselves or be sympathetic to the issue. Just remember that there is always more than one way to get something done if you want it badly enough. You asked my advice and I am giving you my blessing to go on the job market with or without your adviser's support. Believe me, it's not the end of the world.

    If you can convey your passion for the research that you do, the quality of your proposed research program, your high-caliber teaching skills, and your grant-writing abilities up to this point, that will weigh heavily in your favor. Although it will be harder to find a position without his blessing, it is not impossible. Then again, I am certain that your quest to get a Ph.D. and defy the odds to get to the level that you have was not easy either. Tap into the strength I know you have.

    The take-home message to this column is that you might be pleasantly surprised by the results you get by playing the game--that is, if you play it the right way. Leveraging your newly found power to your benefit is only one of the pluses of playing the game. You may find out that your paper ends up being published on your terms AND your adviser supports your entry into the job market simply because you realized that he was playing the game and responded accordingly, while in the meantime, your adviser figured out that the game might not work for him this time around!

    Tune in to my column next week for more tips on how the game works and how you may use it to maximize your career outcomes.

    --Dr. Clemmons

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