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'Independent agents' no more

Kevin Struhl offers his take on how collaboration, competition have changed mentee–mentor relationships
Courtney Chandler
Dec. 2, 2022

In my last career column, I wrote about how mentors at various stages in their careers in academia approach time off for their trainees, specifically around the end of the year and holidays. In preparation for that piece, I talked with Kevin Struhl at Harvard Medical School. He has been running a research lab for 40 years, and I thought his take warranted a separate column.

I’ll admit: What he had to say took me somewhat by surprise. I think his reflections on how time off is handled now versus how it was handled in the past speaks to how the overall mentor–mentee relationship has changed over time.

Courtesy of Kevin Struhl
Kevin Struhl is the David Wesley Gaiser professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology in the Harvard Medical School.

Grad students: Employees or independent agents? 

When I asked Struhl what his policy was for time off with trainees, his answer was simple: He doesn’t have one. “They do whatever they want,” he said. “It’s their life and their career. They can manage their own time. I don’t pay much attention to when or how long they take off.” 

While I was lucky to have a graduate school mentor who was likewise generous with time off, I know that isn’t always the case. I’ve seen grad students and postdocs subtly (or outright) shamed for taking time off, regardless of the reason, or expected to make up that time on the weekends. My own graduate program didn’t even have guaranteed annual time off for graduate students until my fourth year, making it harder to take time off if a PI didn’t approve.  

Struhl says the changing approach to time off gets at a bigger cultural shift that has occurred within academia over the past few decades. When he was a graduate student, he said, it was a much more independent experience: Your mentor or PI served as an adviser, but without as much structure and organization as what exists for graduate students now. He said he would work like “a maniac” but would also take long vacations, ranging from three to nine weeks, without a problem. 

“When I was a student and postdoc, there was less emphasis on the employer–employee feeling that exists now,” Struhl said. “I was in charge of my own projects, my own timelines and my own productivity.” 

Struhl said he didn’t feel like an employee as a grad student or postdoc, so likewise doesn’t treat his trainees as employees. Instead, he said, he views them as independent agents. He helps guide and advises them but said he doesn’t feel like their boss.  “They usually follow my advice, but it isn’t required, and ultimately the decision is up to them,” he said. 

He continued: “I think there’s a big philosophical issue here: If you’re an employee and your employer tells you what to do, you have to do it. If you’re an independent agent, you can do you own things and manage your own time.” 

He thinks this shift is part of why many PIs approach time off (and other aspects of the mentor–mentee relationship) with more structure, but that it can also make it more difficult for trainees to feel independent and in control of their time and efforts. 

Changing pressures 

Struhl said the difference with how PIs approach their relationships with their trainees now is partially due to changing pressures. When he was in training, projects were generally more focused and less collaborative, he said. Most of his publications had only two authors on them: him and his PI. Now, it’s rare to see a publication with fewer than five authors.

“The collaborative side of research, where a lot of people are contributing to a given project, that really does change things,” he said. “Before, if you took off for two months, which I did after one of my most important results, you were only affecting your own timeline and your own productivity. Now, that isn’t the case.” 

He also noted how this increase in collaboration has affected publishing. He said that a biochemical or genetic paper might have been accepted for publication 10 years ago but today editors want genetics, biochemistry and other disciplines combined into a single paper, and this typically involves multiple authors who are dependent on each other. 

Also, he said the way PIs are evaluated for grants and promotions has evolved.   

“PIs are now a little more at the mercy of the specific accomplishments of their trainees than they used to be,” he said. In particular, grant review panels prefer to see trainees contributing to the specific aims of the grants as opposed to striking out in new directions. This may result in PIs putting more pressure and emphasis on their trainees to help ensure their own success. 

Broader changes in the academic job market also have influenced the change in mentor–mentee relationships. 

“There’s way more competition now, and there aren’t nearly as many academic jobs, so people are coming into graduate school and postdoc positions with a different mindset,” Struhl said. 

Taken together, these factors — an emphasis on trainees as employees, increased collaboration, and competition for funding and jobs — have altered the way most PIs interact with their graduate students and postdocs. Sometimes this is for the better, but sometimes it also comes with a stripping of agency. I do not want to portray this change as inherently good or bad but do want to help trainees realize they have to be their own advocates. This extends to time-off requests. So, if you’re a trainee, make sure you take the time off you need at the end of this year. 

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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