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MentorDoctor: No Pubs, No Postdoc?

Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D. Chair and Professor Department of

Dear MentorDoctor:

I am an African American who recently graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry from a predominantly white institution. During my time as a graduate student, my adviser became chair of the department, and as a result, training graduate students and doing research were no longer a priority. Although I wrote two research articles at her request, they were never published due to her lack of involvement. Now, I'm looking for a postdoctoral fellowship, but without any first-author publications, I'm having difficulty finding a position. How should I handle this situation without openly complaining about my adviser?


Up a Creek Without a Paddle

Luis Echegoyen: This is a very difficult and sensitive situation to be in and, unfortunately, a reasonably common one. As a department chair myself, I know how difficult it is to maintain an active and publishing research group, but it is a serious responsibility that needs to be upheld at all costs for the benefit of the students.

The student-adviser relationship is a two-way street, and both sides have to be committed. You state that you wrote two research articles, which makes the situation even more troublesome to me, because correcting and editing articles that are already written is not that difficult to do. In my view, based on what you stated in your message, you have every right to complain about your adviser and to demand that she help you in every possible way to publish your research work.

Go to her in a polite yet firm manner and request her help. If she refuses, ask if it is acceptable for you to proceed with the publication of the work, even if it requires that you send the manuscripts yourself. If she refuses, go to her superior, maybe the dean, and present your case. Your whole future depends on these publications. As a minority scientist, you are going to have enough difficulties, so you don't need additional problems and red flags against you.

There is another, less confrontational, way around the situation. Perhaps a trusted faculty member from your thesis committee could help by being a liaison between you and your adviser. Sometimes it is easier for faculty members to talk between themselves, and usually colleagues are able to communicate the gravity and importance of these kinds of situations.

I hope that you publish your articles in a timely manner and proceed to a postdoctoral position in the near future. I wish you the best.

Isabella Finkelstein: You do have a challenge, and not an uncommon one. Obviously, you must have your adviser review and approve any manuscript you submit for publication. Some suggestions are listed below.

1. Have someone in your laboratory or on your committee critically review your manuscripts. Perhaps if your adviser just had to review "a finished product" she would find the time so that the manuscripts could be submitted.

2. Has your adviser written letters of recommendation for you yet? If not, perhaps she could indicate on the letters that she is currently reviewing your two first-author papers. This would establish that you have prepared manuscripts.

3. For the past several years, I have reviewed postdoctoral applications for a program. At the time they submitted their applications, 15% to 20% of the applicants did not have first-author papers. Make sure that your application presents the positive aspects of your training. Remember, the postdoc is supposed to give you additional training. Good luck in your search.

Thomas Landefeld:Unfortunately, your problem is not isolated (not that it helps you!). Here is what I would suggest.

The personal statement or letter of interest is an invaluable means to provide important information to a prospective employer, program, fellowship, etc., in a way that does not have to indict, accuse, or discredit anyone, especially a mentor who may be needed later on. The key is how it's written and the wording. Once an interview is provided, appropriate details can be shared.

I would recommend that you fashion your statement/letter so that it highlights your mentor's new responsibilities as chair along with any benefits that the department, other students, faculty, etc., gained. The effect of your not publishing was an unfortunate "side effect" that for these purposes can be just mentioned but not made to be significant (even though it certainly is!).

Most committees are aware of the negative effects of administrative commitments on student mentoring, especially in the lab, so it should not be emphasized. An important part of writing is to be able to say what is needed without making someone mad. So, say what you need to without being inflammatory, accusatory, or overall negative, and in the long run it will work out. I cannot overemphasize the importance of a personal statement always being your signature, your mark, so make sure that it says what you want it to say as you continue to climb the ladder.

The GrantDoctor: Your adviser's reluctance to put these papers forward for publication is likely to be seen by others as a lack of confidence in your work. I have no way of knowing whether this is the correct interpretation; perhaps your adviser really is so busy that she can't be bothered to spend a couple of hours editing and writing a cover letter. But this is a reasonable conclusion for any third party to draw--after all, scientists who are very excited about a piece of work are always eager to see it published--and for you it's a very damaging conclusion.

So you're stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you say nothing, people are going to wonder where your publications are. But if you provide an explanation--that your adviser is holding up publication--some of them, at least, are likely to assume that there's something wrong with the work or (at best) that even if it's sound, it's not worth a couple of hours of your adviser's time.

Although it's hardly flawless, peer review--whether applied to scientific papers or to fellowship proposals--is a far better means of evaluating work than this kind of innuendo. By failing to put your work forward to be judged on its merits--so that you can in turn be judged on your own merits--your adviser is inviting you to be judged by presumption and innuendo. As some people say about Supreme Court nominees, your work deserves an up-or-down vote. There's really only one way this can have a positive outcome: The work needs to be submitted.

How can you make that happen? You can't make it happen, but you can and must give it your best shot. Confrontation is a poor strategy; use charm and savvy instead. Make sure your adviser realizes what's at stake for you without causing her to feel challenged, threatened, or criticized. Send her a birthday card (on her birthday, of course) with a note. Buy her a bottle of her favorite Bordeaux ... again, with a note. Hopefully, after spending years working closely with your adviser you know what is likely to work best, so I won't waste your time providing specific tactical advice. Just please realize that at this point in your career, getting that work published is the most important thing that can happen. So find a way to make it happen.

Still, if that doesn't work out--if you try and fail--that doesn't spell the end of your scientific dreams; far from it. You will still find a good postdoc, whether or not you have a fellowship at first. (Both NIH and NSF offer administrative supplements to existing grant holders that can be used to support minority science trainees; these are frequently granted and require no additional scientific review.) During your postdoc, you will have the opportunity to do good work and get it published. Once that happens, you'll be on your way.

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