Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 14 September 2012

My group, Your group, or Our group

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Posted in PhD life, politics, Tips

In science the dilemma of either cooperating or competing is everywhere. The situation is never black or white and depends on the discipline. In this post I will limit myself to the typical small-science group model: one group leader, one or two postdocs and a number – typically between 4 and 6, of PhD students.

All the group member are under pressure. PhD students have to finish their thesis in time, with preferably a couple of first-author articles in glossy magazines.

On the level of PhD students there is already possibly competition if the work of PhD students overlap either with respect to subject or when equipment is shared.

The postdoc’s first aim is to get at some academic place a tenure track position. He needs papers. The PhD students might not want him on their papers, or the other way around.

Group leader
And then the group leader. He is competing all the way. With other group leaders. Both locally and internationally. He wants to be promoted to full professorship. His ambition is an endowed chair. Or an invitation to become a full professor at a renowned institute. Or he just wants a higher salary.

The subject of this post is to discuss how a group leaders present the group he leads  to the outside world in general and in particular to his competitors. Let us call the scientist Mary Johnson leading a group called Nano Biodevices based at the University of California Santa Barbara. How should she refer to this group:

  • My group
  • Our group
  • The Johnson group

US style
When I listen to US scientists, it is quite clear. They will talk about “my group”, “my lab”, “my postdoc” and “my PhD student”. When non-scientists hear this possessive scientist talking they might think that slavery is not yet abolished in science. Anyway Mary will talk about “my group”.

It is clear that if Mary would refer to the group as “The Johnson group” she should go in therapy.

Some of the “my group” group leaders do not realize that they use this terminology. However others, specially those at famous  institutes were postdoc candidates and candidates for PD positions are lining up, consider their group members as a disposable workforce. The scientific results of the whole group should be attributed solely to the leader of “my group”.

In my opinion the act of group leaders referring to their group as “my group”  is an insult to all group members. As far as I know I have never did it. I will refer to the group of which I am the  group leader as to  “our group”. Sounds so much better and so much closer to the truth.

Other people talking referring to the group
During conference presentations speakers might want to refer to results obtained by the group Nano Biodevices. Problem of course is that these hyped-up names are not useful in a scientific discussion. Referring to the group as “Mary Johson’s group” is a practice I do not like that. I think “the group of Mary Johnson” is slightly better. Even better is “the UCSB group”.

Junior scientists
If you have choice between various groups to join, check if you can find out how they refer to the group they are leading. This observation might help you in making the choice.

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  1. Unregistered

    14 Sep 2012 10:22, Gijs van Soest

    Ad, I share your European sensitivity for possessive language. However, I have worked with American junior scientists, even graduate students, who would refer to their home base as “my lab” or “my group”. So this appears to be pretty common parlance, not necessarily implying hierarchy.

  2. Mirjam

    16 Sep 2012 11:06, Mirjam

    What bugs me more than the usage of ‘my group’ is the people that forget to mention that other people were involved at all (group members or collaborators), presenting everything as their own ideas and work. I suspect ‘my group’ is meant in a different way than it may sound to people from a different country/culture/language… And we are talking about subtleties here: I have no problem talking about a ‘PhD student in my group’, but will rarely say ‘my PhD student’, because you indeed don’t own people but you do build up a group (i.e. your own ‘business’) with your own ideas, money you bring in and people you select. The use of e.g. ‘Lagendijk Lab’ probably is also a matter of convenience, because you immediately know which group is meant (I will frequently know the author names, but not the place they work at) and science in the end is very much centered around the ego’s of the scientists. To change the usage of group indicators one needs to change the way the scientific world works right now…

  3. Unregistered

    19 Sep 2012 19:59, Philip Chimento

    I’m not sure there’s really a functional difference between “Mary Johnson’s group” and “the group of Mary Johnson.” To my native English-speaking ears, the former does not sound more possessive than the latter. The latter does sound, however, unlikely to be used by native speakers. Is it just me or what do other native speakers think?

  4. Ad Lagendijk

    20 Sep 2012 20:09, Ad Lagendijk

    It is quite clear I am not a native speaker.
    However, when I hear a group leader saying “My group” or “My lab” at a conference, from the way he says it, I have no doubt about his intentions.

    @Mirjam You are absolutely right about forgetting to mention other people. That is why my second or third slide is always about collaborators and collaborations. If it would the last slide it either gets skipped out of lack of time or it gets rushed over.

  5. Mirjam

    24 Sep 2012 14:52, Mirjam

    The problem is not in the choice of wording but in the attitude of the speaker…

  6. Unregistered

    3 Feb 2013 16:05, Shan

    “Our” group is the only way to go. This is of particular importance when interviewing for a new position. Leaders that say “my this” and “my that” will behave in the same way at their new university, owning everything they see.

    As for presentations. it is always good to have a small picture of the main drivers of a project in the top right hand corner of the slide. Saying their name is nice, but pictures are far better.

  7. Unregistered

    6 Jul 2013 8:17, praha

    little more that my group happens when there are much more researchers (post doc, senior post doc, PhD students, Undergrad project students) under a leader (PROFESSOR), then also comes the internal group ‘A’s group versus”B” group and competition within the group……Imagine the competition happening there!!

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