Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Paper Jam

Here I am, post Ph.D., knee-deep in papers that need to go out the door. This situation occurs frequently in my graduate school lab. Usually a student from my current lab leaves with one first author paper and publishes the remaining two papers during their post-doc time. I know this is common in other places as well. However, I was sure I would avoid a similar fate for two reasons.

1. Unlike advisor, I can think in a paper-based manner. Actually, think is not the right word. Advisor can think in a paper-based manner, she just gets off track quickly and easily.
2. I inherited a project with compelling preliminary data and the person I inherited it from had already made several mutants and constructs. I thought I would hit the ground running.

Question: What the hell happened? Why am I, at the tail-end of my graduate career, pushing three papers out the door at the exact same time?

Answer: Because I completely started my project over in March 2007. Yes, completely. I destroyed every single construct and mutant that I started with because they were totally useless. I'll post about the spiral into hell that led up to this mass destruction of plasmids and mutants another time, but suffice it to say, I did not have a choice.

Before surrendering strains and plasmids to the autoclave, I spent two years trouble-shooting and I learned a lot. I also uncovered a couple of pieces of data that I felt confident would become papers 2 and 3.

During this time of trouble-shooting my plan was: Uncover the mystery of this project and why the results were not always reproducible, fix said problems, get data, and write up the paper. Then, I would start investigating the interesting finds for papers 2 and 3. I did figure out the problem, and that is why everything went into the trash and I began again.

I decided that when I started the project over, that I would need to work on the other two portions of the project at the same time, or I would never graduate. Just under two years later, I had enough data for a dissertation and almost three papers. I still hoped that paper 1 would get out early, but it was rejected. So now, I am adding two experiments to that manuscript and resubmitting (to the same journal since the editor says they really liked the work) while putting the finishing touches on papers 2 and 3, so that I can submit them as well.

What's the big deal if I still get three first author papers from my Ph.D.? The big deal is interviewing for post-docs with no publications. I think this might pose a small problem for some.

Fortunately for me, it did not, but my situation is far from typical. Since I decided not to move to another city, I was able to rely on my reputation as an excellent graduate student to get my foot in the door. Post-doc PI is very familiar with graduate PI's work. Furthermore, I chose the most well-respected members of graduate school department to serve on my committee and glowing recommendations from them, made the lack of publications a non-issue. Thankfully, I wanted to work in this lab and had been coveting it from afar for a long time, but what if I hadn't wanted to stay in town where people believed my boss when she told them not to worry, I would have publications? I don't know if someone in another city, at the same caliber as post-doc PI would have given me the time of day.

So, here I am, in exactly the situation I was sure I would avoid, considering myself lucky that I really haven't suffered for it. I am glad that my academic career did not stop before it started and that I did not have to spend the next few years in career limbo repairing damage done from graduate school. Now, if I can just regain a little energy and motivation, I just might pull it off.


chall said...

I know it's hard but give yourselv a week off. Completely. Just as a break for yourslef.

And then when you come back it will be easier to look at the papers and say "wow, out the door with you and submit".

Of course, I did have most of my publications done or almost done when I defended... and the ones that weren't I wasn't the first author on so....

but it is really good not to have to work on the former publications when you restart your post doc. Clean slate and all that...

anywayu, GOOD LUCK!! And don't think too much about "what if". You're good. You made it. That's it!

chall said...

and sorry about all the spelling errors. clearly 11 hours at work is taking a toll.

ahh... the glorious life as a post doc ;)

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Isn't science great? I remember a student in my postdoc lab starting all his constructs from scratch again, due to too weak of a termination signal and resulting transcriptional read-through...

microbiologist xx said...

chall - you are not the only one to give me this advice. I need a week, but boss wants paper 1 out and so do I, so I will take that week in a few.

Don't worry about spelling errors here. I usually don't notice them.

cath - Oh yes. science is grrrreat sometimes. Starting my project over from scratch sucked some serious ass. I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or fly to Singapore and kick the crap out of previous researcher. I could've taken him too, but then I remembered that they cane people in Singapore, so I just went home for a couple of days.

Candid Engineer said...

Just wrote a post on this issue (all of the publications coming up at once after you leave) last week. My experiences in engineering (where people choose to do this) have certainly been quite different than those of my bio-readers (where people are forced to do this). Seems like you are not alone, anyway. Take heart.

microbiologist xx said...

candid engineer - Thanks for the comment.
Until I started reading blogs written by so many women scientists, I didn't realize how different things were in our respective fields.