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Authorship, Feuding and Career Doubts | BenchFly
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Authorship, Feuding and Career Doubts

Dear Dora: Authorship, Feuding and Career DoubtsThanks for all of the great questions!  We’re addressing three questions each month, so If you don’t see your question this time, keep an eye out for our future issues where it will likely show up!  Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com.


Dora Farkas is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site.


Dear Dora,

My PI has a long-standing feud with another PI in the department as a result of some incident several years ago.  The problem is that because of the other PI’s expertise and reputation, I’d like to talk to him about my project; however, I think my PI will get angry or at least disapprove.  Should I try to find a way to smooth it out or just forget it and miss the opportunity to advance my project?

April, Grad student

Dear April,

Before you talk about this delicate issue with your PI, you need to weigh the costs and benefits of this possible collaboration. Depending on the nature of the feud, the two PI’s may or may not be able to work together. If their feud was severe, it might be best to avoid a collaboration altogether. If you think that they could work together in a professional manner, you still need to think about why the other PI’s contribution is important.  Is it possible to seek help from another expert who gets along better with your PI?

If you think the other PI’s expertise would be very valuable for your project and the nature of the feud was not very severe, then you can probably have a tactful discussion about this issue with your PI. First, let him know your reasons for wanting to work with the other PI, but also listen to his or her opinion. Your PI might have good reasons for not wanting to work with the other professor. If that is the case, be understanding and talk about an alternate plan for advancing your project. In the event that your PI agrees with your proposal, it is important to clarify how you want the other PI to contribute. This way, you will be able to get the other professor involved, without offending your own PI. In addition, you will gain your PI’s respect for being a resourceful yet considerate person.


Dear Dora,

I provided about 80% of the work that has been included in a figure in a recent paper draft, but my PI is not going to include me as an author because he said “I didn’t make a significant intellectual contribution” – is this fair, even though I did the work??

Jorge, Graduate Student

Dear Jorge,

Every PI has a different policy regarding authorship, and the definition of “significant intellectual contribution” also varies. Science Magazine actually published an article called “The Ethics of Authorship: Feature Overview–How Should Authorship Be Decided?” This article also has a link to authorship criteria as set by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. While no one is required to follow these criteria, they do emphasize the need for authors to be part of the “thinking process” behind a paper.

In general, in order to be an author, one would need to contribute to the planning of the project itself, provide a significant part of the data, write the manuscript, or contribute expertise. You provided 80% of the work for one figure, but overall what percentage of the work did you do for the paper? If your overall contribution is small, your PI might think of you only as an “extra pair of hands”, rather than as an author. If your overall contribution is significant, it is worth talking to your PI about his requirements for authorship. Even he does not include you as an author on this particular paper the discussion will help you to avoid disagreements in the future. In addition, the experience you gained from this work will probably help you to plan your own projects and papers in the future.


Dear Dora,

I’m a second-year graduate student and I’m not sure this career is for me.  Four more years may end up being a waste of time.  Are there any steps I can take to figure out if I’m just in a rut or if I’m really on the wrong path?

Dan, Graduate Student

Dear Dan,

A little know fact about doctoral programs is that almost every student considers quitting at least once. Many students get frustrated when their projects do not go well or if they have difficult advisers. Some students think about quitting when they realize how much sacrifice a Ph.D. degree can take in terms of time, money and family issues. It is important to clarify your own reasons for wanting to leave the program before you make any changes.

My suggestion is to think about what type of career path you would like to follow. If you want to follow the academic track, you definitely need a Ph.D., but the requirements in industry are not so clear. In fact, a Ph.D. degree can actually narrow job opportunities initially, since some companies prefer to hire Master’s level scientists instead of Ph.D.’s to lower their costs. On the other hand, most senior scientists and group leaders in industry have Ph.D. degrees and if that is the career path you would like to follow, then a Ph.D. degree can provide you with the necessary qualifications. If you decide to follow a career path that does not require a doctoral degree, then four more years in your program would definitely be a waste. Your school will probably grant you a Master’s degree, so you will not leave empty-handed. In the event that you still want to pursue a PhD degree, but are unhappy with your project, adviser, department or school, it is best to talk about these issues with someone (e.g. your PI, classmates, friends, family) to find out where the problem is. Hopefully, there can be an easy solution such as a change in your project or switching PI’s. If you want to change your department or school, it is best to talk to a graduate school counselor who can help you to find an appropriate research group.


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:


Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!


9 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. 13columns

    wrote on January 21, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    dan is smart to ask the hard questions early on. science is a great career, but it can be a tough road. if you're just going through the motions without a plan, you may end up spending the better part of a decade working towards something you're not truly interested in.

  2. wizkid

    wrote on January 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I've worked for seven different PIs in my research career and between them they covered the spectrum of publication philosophies. I definitely agree that finding out in the beginning what the PI requires for authorship is essential. Whether you agree with them or not, you will know what's expected. Aside from not being blindsided at the time of publication, understanding the rules means you can tailor your interactions appropriately. So if your PI wants "an intellectual contribution", maybe it's worth making the effort to provide one (as opposed to just being a pair of hands). Or maybe it's not… But at least you'll know where you stand.

  3. biochem belle

    wrote on January 21, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    If Dan would like more time to mull over his future career without burning time in grad school, he might consider taking an official leave of absence. Many departments have a policy in place for students to take extended leave.

  4. dayman

    wrote on January 22, 2010 at 1:21 am

    In my experience, a masters in biology is worthless in the sense that you are not any more hireable than just a bachelors. This was confirmed for me anecdotally when I saw on facebook that a college classmate left grad school after 2 years with his bachelors and ended up working an entry level job at the FDA.

    I grappled with quitting graduate school, but I am glad I didn't. I still haven't graduated yet, though, so there is plenty of time for me to regret my decision.

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