On the (possible) Origin of Terrible PIs by Means of Natural Selection

This is a post about a species most young scientists have probably encountered at some point or another: terrible bosses. The PIs who are insecure, awful at recognizing and resolving conflicts, or distrustful control freaks. The group leaders, who think bullying employees, insisting on long working hours or installing a no-holiday policy will create a productive work environment. Or the (often young) PIs who are still so unaware of their position, and so involved in promoting themselves rather than their group, that they completely neglect their students/postdocs. The list goes on. Over the years I have seen many of my friends, who started off as enthusiastic, talented students, become victims of such bosses, and leave research disillusioned. And every time this happened, I have wondered how those PIs got their position in the first place?

Boss from Hell (or rather, the Death Star).

Well, this summer, I have spent a large part of my “holiday” writing postdoc fellowship applications. One thing that struck me was that all the fellowships I applied for entirely failed to consider non-research scientific activities in their evaluations. And it occurred to me: maybe this is where the problem starts. Maybe this is a bottleneck in the system, where scientists are selected based purely on their research results, without any consideration of their personality or people skills.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a complete heretic. I do think scientific achievement should be judged primarily based on our research. Note: “primarily”, not “exclusively”. If nothing else, I think that partaking in activities, like science outreach, mentoring students, writing a blog, organizing meetings/workshops/journal clubs etc, should provide someone a competitive edge over someone else with an otherwise similar research output.

But I’ll even go further. While someone’s immediate scientific output might be reflected well by their research results, there’s more to it. Science is a way of thinking, a way of identifying interesting questions and finding a method to answer them. Science also has it’s own ethical and moral code, In addition, much of science involves team work, and depending on the project and/or the career stage one might have very different roles within such a team, from “contributor only” to “decision maker” or “conflict mitigator”, and fulfilling different roles requires social skills, some of which can only be obtained with experience. So, actually, long-term scientific output will depend not only on our own research, but also on how well we can perform different roles within a team, and on even more extended time-scales also on whether we can raise a future generation of scientists, who have learned (with our help) the methodology and ethics of science. But developing these “soft” skills, which a PI might need, requires time and energy. Time and energy that would probably otherwise be invested in research. So, in fact, when postdoc fellowship applications look at research output only they may well be selecting for young researchers who place no emphasis on such skills and focus all their attention on research instead.

This, I think, is tragic. The impact may not be visible tomorrow or next week, but give it a couple of decades and it will show. Science is a form of apprenticeship where how you do research is almost as important as the research itself. So, if boss-from-hell material has a selective advantage, and these people will become the PIs of the future, the scientists growing out of their lab, might in return nourish and nurture a similar attitude further down the road.

Clearly, balancing the importance of research and non-research activities in the evaluation of a fellowship application is difficult. But it would be a good first step to at least include non-research activities in the application forms. Some fellowships, like Marie Curie, are already on the right track. I hope others will follow suit, too.

5 thoughts on “On the (possible) Origin of Terrible PIs by Means of Natural Selection

  1. Hi Uschi, thanks for the nice summary of what many graduate students have come to see over the years. When I was in graduate school in the 90s we debated this exact question–I’ve even had a post in the back of my mind with the working title “Why are so many PIs A**holes,” but I think that’s not needed now and I’ll just link back to this.
    I think you’re entirely correct in thinking about selection and how that has worked to bring out PIs that, in many cases, are brilliant scientists but not too great mentors and managers. I see this a lot in industry as well (and not just science). Most new employees are brought into an organization as individual contributors. If you do well, you get promoted. If you do really well you get…to be a manager. Which, when you think about it, isn’t at all why you got recognized in the first place. People want to get promoted and be managers for the prestige and increased pay, but also for the chance to implement their vision on the larger scale. I would say many people want to be Directors; not so many want or have the aptitude to be people managers and mentors.
    So, that’s the bad news. It’s not just science. It’s business too.
    However, the good news is that, as you point out, many kinds of enterprises are becoming much more team and group oriented. The big problems today are just too large for one group to handle and so I do see more of a premium being put to the kinds of skills you describe. Daniel Goleman coined the term “Emotional Intelligence” to describe the ability to work well with others (among other things), and that skill should, in theory continue to be more and more valued as time goes on.
    So, just like changing environments did in the woolly mammoths (as has just been suggested based on new DNA analysis http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/09/11/Climate-change-not-human-hunting-led-to-extinction-of-woolly-mammoths/UPI-56801378941127/?spt=hs&or=sn), we can hope changing research environments will do the same to the A**hole PI.

    All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

  2. Hi, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I sort of figured that probably the phenomenon is probably more widespread, but I have little insight into the workings of business and industry, so would have been out of my depth.
    I’m also curious how the field will develop: at higher levels of selection apparently outreach activities etc are already more seriously considered, but I’m kind of worried that if they are neglected early on (eg for postdocs fellowships) valuable people might drop out of the system before they get to those higher positions. Overall, I get the impression that there may be a changing environment and growing recognition for non-research activities, although currently a lot of that is just lip service. So I think it’s important to speak up about these problems, because the people who are part of the system now understand the failures of the system much better than decision makers who might have done their PhD and postdoc back in the 70s and 80s, when things were different.

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