Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From the commentariat

Last week I posted my thoughts on ways in which people might actually make their postdoc a fun and rewarding experience. I know, what a jerk, right? Several commenters came by to rant about how all postdocs are horrible and exploitive and I learned that I have been exalted to "privileged" status because both my wife and I were willing to move for that phase of our lives and we actually enjoyed our time in Postdoc City. Oh, the humanity!

Then came a comment from Girlpostdoc. I started to respond before realizing that her comment had absolutely nothing to do with my post. It helps when commenters stop to read the post before flying off the handle, but I thought we should discuss the comment anyway in it's own thread and we can try and stay on topic here.

Let's take it point by point.

This advice is truly superficial and frankly misleading. Something happens to people when they get TT jobs, it's like a switch goes off in their head and they all of sudden have to become part of the clique. In doing so, they forget where they came from or what they witnessed.

Didn't you notice we all have the same rings?

Believe it or not, I really did have a good postdoc (all 4 years) and was in a multi-lab research group that included a couple of dozen postdocs who, if they were having a horrible time, never let on to me or anyone I knew. It's not a unicorn, there are people who enjoy working together and I still regularly chat with most of the cohort I had significant overlap with. I even collaborate with a couple of them and the labs I left.

The advice I provided were suggestions based on numerous observations of people who found really fun and productive postdocs. Unless by "misleading" you mean "not leading to a miserable situation", then guilty as charged. My advise was based specifically on "where [I] came from or what [I] witnessed"

More germane to this discussion is what TT faculty "learn" that gives current postdocs the impression that some of them "forget where they came from or what they witnessed". Hold that thought.

You, like many others have bought into a mythology that pervades not only science but the arts. The myth in the arts is that in order to produce a great work of art, one needs to suffer. Come on. There are plenty of cases where that is completely false.

The same mythology is now being built up in the sciences by people like you. If you want the priviledge of being a "scientist", you need to be accept poverty and expect to be bullied.

Postdoc pay isn't great, but I'm pretty sure that "suffering" is taking it a bit far. A little perspective here is encouraged. If you look at the median US household income you might decide that ~$40K is not too bad. One can make the argument that $40K is not commensurate with experience, but there are financial realities of grants that one needs to consider here. I know that postdocs don't care what they cost their supervisor, but that has a very real impact on salary.

Salary is only part of the equation. Say a postdoc is making $40K. At my institution, if we are putting in a grant with a postdoc we have to include money to cover family insurance unless we have a postdoc committed who is single. Family benefits = 61% of salary, or in our hypothetical case, $24K for the year. Add to that the indirect costs to the grant, which in most places is around 50% and it looks like this 40K (salary) + 24K (benis) = 64K x 1.5 = $96K per year. That might not be a big deal if a lab has a few NIH R01s, but for an NSF funded lab, that's a big fucking deal. Go to the NSF stats page, pick your favorite program and look at the median payout per year. It's around $150K and that includes indirect costs. So, as a postdoc, you eat 2/3 of a median annual budget. At $50K a year, the cost to a grant jumps to $120K. So, for those of you who ask, "why can't I get another $10K? for my labor?" realize that it's not that your PI is trying to screw you, it's that she's trying to run a lab off grant funding and a postdoc already costs 2/3 the total, before grad students, supplies and travel. If you want to get paid to sit in an empty room, maybe you can get that extra $10K. Just food for thought.

After 6 years, I have earned the RIGHT to be considered scientist. I don't know what you people in cell and molecular biology do during your degrees, but in Ecology and Evolution, as PhD students, we came up with the questions, designed the experiments, wrote scripts to analyze our data, and yes of course wrote the manuscripts. We even wrote grants to get money to do the research. All of these things are what scientists do. Thus, I am a fucking scientist.

I don't expect to have both money and independence immediately. But fuck if I don't get my independence in a postdoc then pay me the big bucks and I'll do whatever the fuck I'm told to do. But I won't be paid a secretarial salary just so I can have the priviledge of being a fucking monkey. That's just bullshit.

Now we're heading into Wackyland. I completely agree that anyone who does the above is a scientist and I have no idea where I said anything to the contrary. Girlpostdoc, you are a scientist. Of that I have no doubt. That said, it's time to reign things in here a bit Entitletor. One thing that needs to be clear is that no one cares what you think you are entitled to when it comes to jobs, resources or respect. This only gets worse once you are faculty, so it's a good idea to get used to it now.

The second mistake you make is assuming that it is still training. It is not. As a postdoc, I am collaborating with my supervisor. I am training and teaching him, as much as he is training and teaching me. I come with expertise and the postdoc is a chance to exchange our expertise. Making the mental switch from student to collaborator is crucial. I believe that is what defines a successful postdoc.

Welcome to crazy island, population 1. First off, if someone could point to where my post would have spurred this response, I would love to know. But since we're here, let's get something straight: A postdoc is still training, but it is completely different from the training a grad student receives. If it's not, you're in the wrong lab.

There absolutely should be an exchange of ideas and expertise between postdoc and mentor. When I look for a postdoc, I look for someone who has skills I don't. I don't need another me, I need someone who adds a new dimension to the work we're doing. I want someone who can bring in new ideas and take the research in new directions. At the same time, I have a mentoring responsibility to help the postdoc get to where they want to go. If that is a TT faculty position, I will do what I can to prepare them for that. I've been through the transition and TRAINING the postdoc to make that jump is part of the job.

I think it's telling that all of the talk about "I knew how to be a PI right out of grad school" comes from current postdocs, whereas almost all faculty bloggers will admit that the transition was overwhelming, more difficult than they expected and that they learned a lot in their postdoc that helped them. If you think this is a skewed sample, go find the newest faculty member in your department and ask them whether they found their postdoc valuable in becoming faculty. I would bet they will either tell you their postdoc sucked and they learned a lot about being independent and how to succeed on their own or that they got great mentoring that helped them anticipate some of the craziness that ensues in the first year.

Because, frankly, all of the talk by postdocs about how they don't need the extra training to be faculty sounds a whole lot like a bunch of one legged people discussing how to win an ass kicking competition.


  1. Ooooooh boy.... Here comes the rain.

  2. I had a successful and very enjoyable postdoc And it did help prepare me for my TT position. It is training AND a collaboration. Was I a scientist before starting my postdoc? Sure. I was a better one after. Could I have succeeded in a TT position without having done a postdoc? Maybe, but unlikely. Not a chance I would want to take. Truth is, nowadays in the biomedical sciences you aren't in the running for a TT position without having postdocced. I suspect the same is true in many of the sciences.

    Didn't you notice we all have the same rings?

    Whatever you do, don't mention the tattoos.

    Oh crap.

  3. I'm a 5th year postdoc and have loved (most of) my time here. I'm looking for TT faculty positions, but am also scared to death of moving into that phase of my career. I've made decent pay during my time here, and have learned a lot from my mentor (sometimes simply by figuring out how to communicate with him ;). So, for the most part, I agreed completely with your previous post and didn't think to go back and see the backlash that evidently commenced.

    However, I think it's probably a good idea to keep in mind that some postdocs aren't getting nearly as good of a deal as you and I did. I know of people at my current University that were only making $25K before our Postdoc Office was started. Some weren't allowed vacation or family leave time. And a few were being used merely as technicians, instead of being given some minimal freedom to develop some aspect of a project that they could possibly take with them. I'd still argue that this situation is their own making, as they knew what they were getting into when they took the job, at least they should have. You have to educate yourself when you're looking for a postdoc...ask questions about pay, vacation, family leave, projects and whether you'll be able to take them with you. But, I can see where some of the frustration comes from when you feel like it's time to start your life, but don't have the financial means to do so. In no way, however, do I think this should ever lead to the idea that a PhD is all someone needs to head up their own lab though...

    Otherwise, all I can say is, we've made the decision that this is the career we want. It takes time to do this right, and we sometimes have put off family and other goals to achieve it. Life's about choices, I made mine, you made yours, now make the best of it.

  4. got to tell you-- being a post-doc, so far (two years in) has been the best time of my academic career. Yes, I have to do bitch work for my boss sometimes (can you format this, can you update the bio safety protocol, etc. etc...) but being involved in that sort of thing is just prepping me for the deluge of administrative bull that I have to deal with at a TT position.

    As for the money- I must be weird since I look at it as "They are paying me *how much* to come into the lab and play all day? Are they insane?" Really, I am getting paid a lot (in comparison to when I was a grad student/waitress/bartender etc.) to do something I really enjoy. Do I feel exploited? Nah. Do I love what I do? oh hellz yes. Do I think I could have handled a TT position after 5.5 yrs of grad school? Are you fracking insane? I don't even know if I could handle it now (even though I have been involved in collaborations, grant writing, etc.). In fact, the thought makes me want to crawl under the desk right now.

    So, yeah, just wanted to let you know that there are current post-docs out there who completely agree with what you said in the previous posts, who don't feel exploited, who love their work (because its so much more than just a "job") and who are scared shitless by the thought of running their own lab...

  5. Damn, PLS. Someone touched a nerve.

    I've been mulling over this thing for a while and simply haven't had time to chime in yet. Briefly here are a few things on my mind:

    (1) I am a postdoc, and I fully acknowledge that I am still training. Indeed when applying for NIH (and I'm sure other) fellowships, a key element is the "training potential" of the applicant. I chose a lab where I could be trained-meaning one where I didn't already know how to do everything they did.

    (2) There are things that kinda suck about being a postdoc. But there are things that kinda suck about every job on the face of the planet. Should I ever encounter someone that loves every aspect of their employment, I shall know that they either (a) are lying, (b) are delusional, or (c) have reached a higher plane of enlightenment that is unheard of among the human race and therefore a much, much better person than I an ever hope to be.

    (3) Generally things suck worst when you're stuck in the mire-you're ready to move on but can't and that makes you bitter and angry. I felt that way toward the end of my PhD, but once I gained a little distance and perspective, I realized how much I had learned (something I discussed briefly here).

    (4) I have a definite career goals in mind. With my husband, I have made decisions that increase the likelihood of attaining those goals. We've made sacrifices for it. I could have chosen a different path but didn't. Yes, there are flaws in the system, and some days life really suck. But generally I enjoy what I'm doing, and in my mind, the sacrifices have been worth it thus far. Or maybe I just drank the kool-aid without ever realizing it.

  6. Well, the fact that the commenter believes that TT faculty suddenly develop amnesia about their postdoc experiences the moment they become Asst. Profs suggests that nothing any TT faculty member says will make any difference to her. This is fundamentally not a position that can be reasoned with.

    I do know a fair number of people who are (or were) miserable as postdocs, there are some PIs who are exploitative or just assholes to work for. For those who feel stuck in a miserable position, whatever the reason, it can be hard to hear that being in that position is "good for them". I know that's not what you said or meant, but I think that can be how it's heard.

    From what I've observed, it seems to me that the relationship between a senior postdoc and her advisor is similar in some ways to that between a 17-year-old ready to get the hell out of her parents' house and the parents. Perhaps it takes becoming a parent to see things from the other side.

  7. MH...exactly. Great analogy!

  8. I may be the oddball here, but in my field of interest (chemistry) and for the type of positions that I am looking for, a post doc is not required. Sure, most ads say that postdoctoral experience is preferred, but that is a risk I am taking by applying for those jobs. I am currently a 5th year grad student and have applied to numerous jobs...assistant professor positions, post docs, visiting assistant professor positions, lecturer.

    I am ideally looking for a tenure-track assistant professor position at a PUI or liberal arts college. While, that may not be my next move (depending on my job search), I will use whatever comes next to further my education and teaching experience. Teaching experience is what is highly desired in my career path. All of the post doc positions that I have applied for are either 100% teaching or 50/50 teaching/research. For the record, I am not opposed to a post doc, I just don't want a research centered post doc because I don't feel as though it would benefit my career goals. I also know of a couple of former grad students friends of mine who have similar career aspirations to me, but had to take a research centered post doc for various reason...and they are not very happy. Not with their situation, but because they aren't getting to do what they love, which is teaching. I am trying NOT to follow in their footsteps.

  9. MH, I think you should be like that when you are a senior postdoc. It's not a position to settle in and sleep on the couch until you're 40.

    And yes, I know there are lots of postdocs who are getting exploited, and I am sympathetic to that. However, that doesn't mean that every postdoc is being exploited, which is how some people would color the world.

  10. Some people like their jobs, some people don't...this is not news. What I think sparked a lot of the flack you're getting, PLS, is that there's an undertone of "you're doing it wrong" that comes across in your original post. Like, if you're unhappy it's your fault for choosing a bad lab, for not being flexible with location, for needing more than $40k to live. The problem I see is that when these become the criteria that determine whether or not someone moves on to succeed as a scientist, what are we actually selecting for?

    Look, I fucking love my post-doc. I'm learning a ton, my labmates are the cat's pajamas, and there's no question that I'll be a better professor/PI because of it. BUT--this does not mean that the post-doc system doesn't have it's problems. What does it say when 50 years ago there were no biomedical post-docs, 15 years ago a 2-3 year post-doc was sufficient, and now it's 4-6 years? In another 10 years, is it going to be the norm for people to have to do 9 years of "training" before getting a TT job? When does it end? And who do we lose because of the trend?

  11. PLS--Totally agree that senior postdocs should be eager to get the hell out. I was referring more to the "my parent/PI is full of shit, I can't wait to get out and do things the right way, and I'll never become the kind of parent/PI he/she is" mentality that I've often seen permeate the pre-separation period.

    Dr. Becca has a really good point about the selection for success in academia. Clearly both talent and willingness/ability to sacrifice for career are ultimately needed. Question is whether the current system selects strongly enough in the early career stages for the latter that it weeds out too much of the former. This is likely to be a particularly sensitive point for women who have, or want to have, children and is certainly not a problem that's unique to academia.

  12. Dr. Becca,

    you are quite correct that the trendlines are sucky. I would say that along with the spleen venting on the 'toobs, make sure you are *also* working within the system. People need to find a non whiny narrative (with data, preferably) to advance to all and sundry at the appropriate time. Program, senior and not so senior PIs who aer clueless, etc.

    how do you think the recent trends for K99/R00, early state investigator treatment, etc came to be? It sure as heck wasn't because Professor Bluehair and Dr. Greybeard thought it all up one day...

  13. I'm sorry to be the old fart here, but... relatively speaking, post-doc salaries (in time-adjusted dollars) have gone up significantly. There used to be a lot more weeding out based on who could NOT afford to spend 2-3 years earning the equivalent of $20K/year.

    Drug Monkey: you're usually right on the money, but please... there are lots of us Bluehairs, Greybeards & Saggytits who did work hard to get more for young faculty.

  14. I also think that another reason for the post-doc salary is that post-docs are supposed to get to work on cool projects. A good post-doc has a lot of research output that is in the name of the post-doc but does not require the resources to acquire things like a lab. That allows you to show ability to do scientific research without having to build your own lab first.

    My friends who decided to become Research Scientists instead of post-docs make 50-100% more than I do as a post-doctoral fellow. They also publish a lot less as a first author.

  15. Dr. Becca,
    Looking at the original post with different glasses, I can see where gruntled or disgruntled individuals might interpret it as condemning those who find themselves in a bad postdoc. That wasn't my intention and hopefully I have made that clear. I don't think anyone can deny that bad postdoc exist and even labs that have a history of good mentoring might not work for all personality types. At the same time, the anti-postdoc voices out there would have one believe that it's the second coming of slavery. My suggestions were intended to provide some things for people facing a decision about what to do as postdocs to think about and to air some positive experiences.

  16. joshphd: it's very field-dependent. In my field, in which a lot of people go directly from grad school to Asst Prof positions, or into Research Scientist positions in industry, doing a postdoc would generally set you back relative to your peers. I actually only know two academic postdocs, and while they're happy with their current positions, it seems like a much more stressful life than my non-postdoc non-TT industry friends enjoy.

  17. Drug Monkey makes the point that postdocs need to work within the system too, and I couldn't agree more. And as arrzey says, some prof greybeards do know.

    It's been known for a long time the system was in trouble (COSEPUP, 2000). But it takes a long time and lot of effort to make changes.

    happy or sad, all postdocs (and ex-postdocs!) should have the druthers to work the NPA, their local Postdoc Office, call your local reps. DO SOMETHING instead of just moaning.

  18. There is a mechanistic relationship between those who are currently in tenure track positions and those who were reasonably satisfied with their post-docs. There is a similar relationship between people who managed to find themselves with good grad school advisors. This is a mix of talent, hard work and luck (notice how I didn't say or luck). And yes, this kind of luck is frequently a consequence of privilege. Nothing wrong with acknowledging your own privilege, we've all got some of it.

    Some post-docs are not on track because of something that they didn't do that they should of. Other post-docs are not on track for reasons that are out of their hands. The latter is a deeply sucky experience. When folks make the fundamental attribution error and state or imply that only the first kind of postdoc can possibly exist, then you are rubbing salt in an open wound. It is an asshole thing to do.

    I basically like DrugMonkey's idea of finding a non-whiny narrative. But I do believe that whining is part of the process of mourning the research career that isn't going to pan out. People need to whine, and if you can't whine on the internet, then where can you whine?

    It is true that whining won't solve anything. But you see, when you are in the process of breaking up with science, then it is no longer your job to fix science. It isn't your problem anymore!

  19. Nothing wrong with acknowledging your own privilege, we've all got some of it.

    Yes, but it is frequently used disparagingly against anyone who has had some success, with the implication (or outright statement) that it is simply due to this phantom entity that they have achieved anything.

    When folks make the fundamental attribution error and state or imply that only the first kind of postdoc can possibly exist, then you are rubbing salt in an open wound. It is an asshole thing to do.

    If you're implying that I have done this, I'm not sure how many times I can write the exact opposite sentiment before people read it. I count two in the comments of this post alone and two in comments on other blogs with current posts on this topic. Bad Postdoc Mentors exist, just like shitty bosses exist in every job. Both are everywhere and to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. But bear in mind that bad postdoc exist as well. It's a two way street and the "blame the mentor for my failure" is an oft-used and easy ploy that circumvents self-reflection for any benefit.

  20. Well put tideliar!

    And while I agree with yolio, in that "whining" can be therapeutic, excessive whining can lead to the idea that things are worse for you than others. And when "whining" morphs into aggression towards others, whether in person or on the internet, it's officially jumped off the therapeutic track.

  21. Yolio

    I agree that a bit of whining can do a great deal of good. But how many papers/grants worth of whining can these people do? How many years of whining? Will all the anon/pseudo whining on the internet (of all places) be what they're remembered for when they go?

    Sack up or get out (of science or your shitty lab). Either way stop wasting your life- there's fuck all of it and it doesn't come with a recharge cord.


  22. Either way stop wasting your life- there's fuck all of it and it doesn't come with a recharge cord.


  23. Go PLS! Way to articulate your position.

  24. Would your tone have been just as smug and condescending if you had been responding to Guypostdoc rather than Girlpostdoc?

    She was completely right to describe your ealier post as superficial and misleading. Oh yes, postdoc time is a delightful and rewarding stepping stone on the way to your tt position! Just make sure you avoid the pitfalls and everything will be hunky dory.

    Academic science lures in some of the smartest and most hardworking young people in society, treats them like dirt for 10+ years, and then throws most of them on the scrapheap afterwards. But hey, if we pretend hard enough, maybe reality will change and turn into the idyllic fairytale that we wish it to be!

    That's great that you and your buddies all enjoyed your postdoc experience. I suppose bloggers like Girlpostdoc and MsPhD must be making it up when they describe their experiences. Or maybe they just can hack it, and, being the emotional wimmin that they are, have to deal with their personal failures by spewing irrational nonsense across the internet. And then they are so damned unappreciative when rational chaps like you try to help them see sense!

    "Now we're heading into Wackyland"

    "Welcome to crazy island, population 1."

    Welcome to Fucktard land, population = way too many.

    Is your research just as neat, idyllic and straightforward as your view of the academic science experience?

  25. Would your tone have been just as smug and condescending if you had been responding to Guypostdoc rather than Girlpostdoc?

    Yup, same post. Would you have defaulted to such an easy out as accusing me of being sexist if I was ambiguous about my gender here?

    I suppose bloggers like Girlpostdoc and MsPhD must be making it up when they describe their experiences.

    No, I'm sure they are describing their reality. Some mentors suck.

    Is your research just as neat, idyllic and straightforward as your view of the academic science experience?

    Welcome, take a look around the place. If you did, you would already know the answer.

  26. I've continued the discussion at