Oh Postdoc, Why so critical?

Feb 05 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

During the preparation of a proposal, I somehow managed to draft my specific aims page quickly enough to be able to solicit feedback. Smartly or not-so-smartly, I gave the thing to about ten people- five professors, four postdocs, and a grad student. Unexpectedly, a very clear trend emerged regarding the nature of the feedback:

Sample comments from professors:

  • "Please clarify this one sentence in your background paragraph."
  • "Nice job. Only comment is that this clause sounds funny."
  • "Looks great."

And then there were my postdoc and grad student colleagues. Hahahaha. Their comments were a fucking hoot. Now, don't get me wrong, I got plenty of good feedback from these trainees. It was just that they were so critical about every damn thing.

  • "I hate this adjective!"
  • "I think you should say that instead of which"
  • "I think aim 3 should study eight mangoes instead of seven."

Four out of five trainees returned my aims page covered in red. And the graduate student... oh my. The graduate student went so far as to say he hated the whole proposal. He found it unoriginal, uninspired, and "exactly what he expected  [I] would write". Hahahaha. OK, sez I- I am predictable, and you are retarded.

Makes me think more than ever that those nasty reviews you get on your brilliant manuscript? They really were written by postdocs.

These observations lead me to my hypothesis:

Postdocs are extremely critical of other's efforts because they have not yet realized that there is more than one way to write/study/do something well. They have not done the whole science thing enough times over, they haven't had enough successes, enough failures, to recognize that their way isn't the only way.

31 responses so far

  • ecogeofemme says:

    My academic adviser told me never to suggest reviewers who are early in their careers for just this reason. That made me worry about being unreasonably critical when I review papers, and now I've noticed that my reviews tend to be less harsh than other reviews of the same manuscripts. I still tend to give more detailed comments than others, but I also tend to find more merit in the big picture, which results in me recommending revisions when other people recommend rejection.

    I'm still not real comfortable reviewing, but it is getting easier.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    As part of that, postdocs haven't seen enough proposals. Even after I had successfully written an F32 and a K99 proposal, I didn't know how to evaluate other people's proposals objectively enough. During my first year on TT, I was a reviewer for an internal grad student fellowship and I ripped their proposals to shreds for things like whether they had their prelim data as a separate section or incorporated in the aims, just like a postdoc. Then I did two NIH study sections--and learned a crapton about what really makes an effective proposal and how many different ways there are to skin a cat. Now I tend to critique people much more on the overall story they are trying to tell with their aims, which is much more important than the adjectives they use.

  • You should consider the alternative hypothesis that the senior people are giving you superficial criticism because they are unable or unwilling to devote the time required to go into more detail.

  • During my four years after finishing with my Ph.D., I've come to realize that most often when you give your article/proposal/thesis/whatever to the professor you get only the least possible input. The reason, I believe, is that they don't have anything on stake anymore and simply do not care.

    The best input I have always received from my peers (never had a postdoc to ask). Problem with grad students and undergrads (depending on the case) is often the lack of experience. Postdocs, on the otherhand, will take any opportunity to read the work of others and figure out how to make it better. This is how they learn at the same time.

    At least I try to give constructive criticism and always point out that my comments are only an opinion.

    Just my 2c.

  • Materialist says:

    My guess is that if you had a scatter plot of how much time was spent reviewing your proposal, it would look about the same.
    There was a study a year or two ago about paper reviewers that found the opposite trend, with new postdocs more likely to recommend publication of manuscripts.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    I think there's probably a sweet spot where people have seen enough to know what works but also still give a rat's ass enough to spend time trying to really help you with it.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    @PP- of course I have considered that alternative because that is the story of my life.

    I am not advocating against getting feedback from postdocs. I would highly recommend it. Ideally, you get feedback from both camps, and you are smart enough to weed out postdoc comments that aren't particularly constructive. As to Arlenna's point, I did find that professor comments, while brief, focused on the conceptual and obtaining clarity.

  • PINUS says:

    what cpp said.

  • Bashir says:

    My advisor has told me you could make a similar graph with length of reviews. Postdocs and junior profs will write extensively, while more experienced folks essentially just give a thumbs up or down. I think he agreed somewhat with CPP's assessment. I know when I wrote my first review I spent a lot of time on it and was nervous about not being thorough enough.

  • Anon says:

    My experience has been what CPP said also. It's good to get a variety of viewpoints. Some people are definitely overcritical of everything. If too many people seem to be overcritical of a piece of my work, it is likely an indicator that the proposal, etc, needs to be reworked.

  • Alyssa says:

    In addition to the comments above, I think people early on in their career believe that "critical assessment" == rip this thing to shreds. For example, during journal clubs, students want to find/discuss what's wrong with the paper. And fair enough - that's what we're taught to do in the beginning, right? Then, as people gain more experience, it's easier to discuss both good and bad points.

  • gerty-z says:

    I had the exact same thought as CPP. I was always suspicious of the "looks great". It is so vague and non-committal that I suspect that the "reviewer" spent only a few minutes with the proposal. I agree with you that it is good to get feedback from postdocs, but that you have to filter out the good from everything else. I'm leading a grad student literature-based class now. I think it is important to get folks to look past the nit-picky details and think about the bigger picture. Hopefully we can develop some (more) thoughtful future postdoc reviewers!

  • Dr Becca says:

    If I get a manuscript or grant back with a "Looks good," I figure it didn't get more than the most cursory of reads. There is ALWAYS something that can be improved, and it's frustrating when those I'm counting on to help me find those things don't come through. If they're "unable or unwilling," they should just say so.

    And misuse of "that" vs "which" is totally one of my grammar pet peeves--I probably would have corrected that, too 🙂

  • I agree with Comrade PhysioProf: more senior people simply don't have the time or the inclination to spend hours reviewing or revisiting the manuscript. If they really care, then they can be just as critical or even more so.

  • GMP says:

    I am just wondering where your error bars are on that graph...;)

    Of course, with senior people a large portion of response comes from "don't have time or vested interest, so will just skim over CA's draft." But it is true that people definitely mellow with age, mostly because they don't have that much to prove any more, at least not to a postdoc (whereas fellow postdoc or underling grad student will tear up the paper to demonstrate own superiority/your inferiority).
    Feedback is a great thing, but with too many people it can go totally random, so don't be hung up on any of it. As always, ultimately it's really up to you to identify what really is a potential weakness and decide about the best way to present your ideas.

  • dave says:

    Hey lets call it what it is - your supervisor and other senior Academics couldn't give a dam about your proposal? They are to busy feathering their nest to worry about your silly ideas. Keep working those 60-70 hours a week so your supervisor can tack his/her name on the end of your paper as long as you do all the work. Of course if something goes wrong, well guess who will be thrown under the bus - thats the value of not actually engaging, you can always say "I didn't think they did that!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Cahrist! Just how old do you think I AM?????

  • Anonymous says:

    They have not done the whole science thing enough times over, they haven’t had enough successes, enough failures, to recognize that their way isn’t the only way.

    Hahahahaha! Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you write a post some time ago criticizing a researcher who ran a very successful lab for her approach beacuse you simply could not understand how what she was suggesting would work?

    Well, I guess you're growing up.... And yes, people do mellow w/age, but ... what CPP said.

  • Hmm, everyone seems to be focusing on the professor comments. Don't worry, people, I am well aware that just because someone says something "looks good" doesn't mean there is not something wrong with it. Based on my previous experience soliciting feedback from these professors, however, I know that- should something have been very wrong- they would have said something. They tend to only worry about problems of a sufficiently large magnitude.

    @DM- I thought you had to be at least 70. You're so, you know, wise and everything.

  • Joseph says:

    I'm going to go with being a postdoc making you bitter. You know, the whole oveworked-vastly underpaid thing coupled with the fact that when you start you know that you're fired, but with between a one- and three- year warning. And then you'll probably have to go through it a number of other times.


  • Paul says:

    My experience has been just the opposite. The older the PI I work for, the longer the comments. Some of this is law of small numbers, of course. I'm currently working for a cranky old fellow and an emeritus whose connection with reality wavers in and out. It also seemed to fit my experience in state government--the oldest memo editor was also the one who would leave the most graffiti, most of it pointless and an attempt to force me to speak in his own weird dialect that wasn't even really a subset of accurate English.

    Meanwhile, I'm loving the preprogrammed destruction aspect of a postdoc...I've been counting down the days until I can get the h#!% out of this job! And the money I'm making is more than what most people in the podunk small town where I grew up make, so really...what's to complain about?

  • This reminds me of when I first got a draft back of a project from a supervisor, and being disheartened that it came back absolutely covered in red ink.
    One of the PhD students in the lab told me that actually it was a good thing, because it meant the supervisor had liked it enough to read through all of it, and enthusiastically give advice as to how to make it better.
    Also, I got something similar when running it past a postdoc who was working on a similar project to me. However, going to a Post Doc on a slightly different project elicited the standard "seems fine" response. I think a fair bit depends on how interested the person is in the project you are working on in the first place.
    Since post docs are closer to the lab work than supervisors, they may genuinely be more interested in the way you do things, as they have had the opportunity of seeing it first hand. In the case of some projects, the student is contributing to the whole labs knowledge, and may be an extra pair of hands on a certain Post doc's pet project, so the Post doc has a vested interest in seeing the student succeed (or a physical gag reflex when they see their work clumsily misinterpreted by a student).

  • anon says:

    I reckon other postdocs are so sick of getting crap feedback (as in little or no feedback) from other more senior people, they make a real effort to give you some when you ask for it, knowing that your proposal can matter a lot. So maybe its not all constructive, but I think they do try to give what they can.

  • Dr 29 says:

    Oh my ... even though I'm at the postdoc stage, I try to keep my eyes open and be mindful so that I don't turn that way. I think some peeps, especially those close to getting out and into the prof realm get that way. The guy my former lab collaborated with ended up taking an assistant prof position two years ago, just as I was finishing my degree. You noticed how he critiqued and had tons of lines in red all over the drafts, more so than those of my PI and his, who were full profs and had been for a while. I think this is somehwhat common, especially because they may feel the need to do it was they near the professorship. I try to be nice and give constructive criticism, but I may be part of what I perceive is a minority. Very interesting to read. Thanks for visiting stopping by the blog :-). Best of luck with the proposal!

  • Postdocs are the Goldilocks of proposal reviewers.

  • Sarah says:

    I uuuhh... like to call my criticality as being "thorough"... But yes, I am definitely guilty of giving exhaustive and (sometimes highly) critical reviews*. Strangely, I had never noticed this trend before, but now that I think of it, it is completely obvious. I always pick a peer (grad student or post doc) to review something for me because they really will tear it to pieces and I can feel a lot better about it if it makes it through; seasoned professors are 'way too nice' and will often give, "looks promising" or "great work" style comments which really don't help me (nor do they make me feel confident about it, because I usually just assume they haven't read it thoroughly - nothing is perfect on an early draft... or later one). I think us younger scientists are a lot more critical because we a) feel that it's expected of us b) we like to try really hard c) some of us like it when we are reviewed critically and we think we're being helpful.

    However, it does make me think to try and remember to point out the good elements in something too, instead of just focusing on what could be better...

    * I'm shocked that you had people saying they "hated" the proposal though; I'm critical of content, but not personally attached - there are things that are correct, incorrect, or phrased poorly... but not things to 'hate'. Your grad student didn't give what I'd consider a very professional review..

  • I agree with others that this is partially a time thing. For my own students, I will point out grammatical issues, funky word choices, or other writing issues. For anyone else, I just stick to major issues, since it takes a lot less of my time. I do notice that people earlier in their careers sometimes spend more time on "that" vs "which" than on the scientific content, if that is what you were getting at.

    I totally agree with Bashir, BTW. As I get busier, I have less time to be a good editor when I referee stuff (and that isn't my job, anyway). I focus on the science, and let someone else sweat the small stuff.

  • yolio says:

    There is definitely an emphathy thing that grows with experience. After awhile, you start to appreciate how hard it is to do something that is really, really truly good and how easy it is to flub a bunch of small shit. Early on, the reader is less tolerant of the bumps in the road they experience as a reader. Later, you stop expecting excellence and start being surprised and impressed by it.

    Also, I think that the voice that comes out in reviews is often the inner voice that people use on themselves. When people are really critical, this is how they talk to themselves in their heads. Postdocs are a neurotic, insecure, self-critical bunch. You are just getting a glimpse into their inner world.

  • bacillus says:

    AS a lowly post doc, I once got a manuscript back from famous boss with a post it note attached. It said "this is shit". He left no other commentary elsewhere in the MS. I waited a couple of weeks and gave it back to him, as was, and he signed off on it.

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