Various Lies

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Postdocs, what are they good for?

A postdoc is best served, by definition, by gaining skills needed after a doctoral do...something...[needs citation definition]

In life science n00b postdocs expect to train for faculty status. You have your freshly printed PhD in hand and everyone (except the postdocs) at your graduate lab has been telling you that if you apply yourself as a turbo-gunner real life growed up scientist you'll be a Principal Investigator one day. This is a simple fucking fact - no one tells graduate students that they're embarking on career path with a ~20% chance of success*. And at postdoc level we add to this is fallacy, because not only does gaining more/perfecting bench skills prepare you for nothing more than a technical post, the simple math of the job market should tell you that you have at best a 1 in 10 chance of securing a good research-based PI position. But then again, who looks at the stats?

Your postdoc should prepare you for PI status by simply exposing you to the daily reality of running a lab. If you have the druthers and wherewithal to cotton to this you'll really be OK. Alas, that is rare and increasingly so because postdocs are, today, ten-a-penny and ultra low overheads make them a cost effective labor option** No one is teaching you, because after all you're a postdoc and should be self-sufficient, personnel or budget management or how to write a grant or how to appeal to an editor when the curse'd third reviewer chimes in with impossible demands. No one explains how to negotiate a start-up, or balance the three/four tiers of the tenure track. They don't demonstrate how to say no to increasing committee obligations despite a pressing need for 'time' to write grants.

You learn nothing as a postdoc, except how to be a good technician. To save your PI time and nervous energy by generating data as quickly and efficiently as possible.

So, bearing in mind these happy truths, what the fuck are you doing as a postdoc? Training to be a tech*** or taking the bull by the horns and driving...DRIVING...your career in the direction it needs to be?

*In my career to date, in academic life science, I have met only a small percentage of graduate students (10% maybe) who were pursuing their degree with the deliberate and explicit intention of pursuing a non PI career track.

**a postdoc earns ~$40k/yr + ~10% indirects = $44k. A tech earns $50k/yr + 40% indirects = $70k/yr. Now think about your NIH modular budget and add inflation over time.

***This is an excellent and under-rated career option - technician or research associate/RA prof is an excellent and under rated career move for technically excellent PhDs who love the bench and hate the 'drama' of running a lab


Brian Krueger said...

I think you're absolutely correct. PostDocs are cheap labor hired under the guise of a training position. It's been my experience so far that my major role is to pump out data and papers as fast as possible. If I work hard enough, I'll get a good letter of rec. The majority of my "training" was in grad school, so to justify the shitty wages by calling a postdoc further training is just ridiculous.

Dr. Girlfriend said...

I knew all this going in. And I don’t think I am unusual in that I was determined to be in that top 20%. Actually I aimed to be in that far smaller minority that gets the pick of the best universities in the world – yes I was competitive, naive, and stubbornly stupid. However, I knew that hard work only would not cut it, and so I was strategic as well as obsessive. Everything I did experiment-wise was done with a publication in mind. I even started developing a take-away project! On top of that I took the time to train myself and develop the contacts and skills that would help me hit the ground running once I got a tenure-track position. If there had been a life outside the lab I may have persisted. I am a little bitter.

One thing that pisses me of is incompetent new PIs who lament about how they miss bench work. The painstaking technical work is necessary and I did it, but I sure as hell would rather someone else did it. I much preferred grant writing, manuscript preparation, committee meetings, and mentoring. I love analysing data and trouble shooting, and I got excited about results, but the technical stuff bored the hell out of me.

The best data-generators do not necessarily make the most innovative and capable group leaders. I was well aware of this and whored myself out to the bench because it was the only way rise above the bench.

If there is a lesson to be learnt people like me won’t heed it and a few will succeed. What I don’t understand is the amount of postdocs without direction or purpose who clearly need and supervision and lack ambition. However, a docile data-generator is probably of more value to a PI than an upstart postdoc who opinions and ambition beyond their current lab. At the end of the day we should drop the “training” fa├žade.

Dr 27 said...

Yup, this is the perfect example of why I left academia after less than 2 yrs as a postdoc. I realize that I'd been earning WAY too little compared to some of my peers who'd done a masters or a more technical-oriented career. I have no savings, no retirement account, nothing. I have 6 papers stemming from my dissertation, and that only got me to a postdoc. And when I realozed that there was no way I had the drive and energy to become a PI, I jumped ship. I'm now looking at a "super technician" position and I hope I'm happy there (who knows, right) ... but I'm happy I'm not in a crappy, low paying, frustrating position for years and years on end. Thank you for writing this. It is so true.

tideliar said...

Yeah. This post was inspired by meeting with a postdoc just starting her second year who is killing her career by acting as an animal-house technician, but is too nervous to move jobs because she thinks needs the letter of rec.

I disavowed her of this - you've only a lost a year; get the fuck out now, never mind the letter. She is a US citizen and US trained and has multiple pubs from grad school. She is still very hireable even if she changes fields (rat - human)

SUIRAUQA said...

I agree with what you said... Except if the postdoc is from a third world country. Then all bets are off. The postdoc, as a bonded, indentured laborer, is fair game. I'm watching it happen every day. If you disavow me for me, I can't help it.

funkdoctorx said...

Interesting post...just this past week I found out how much more a technician makes than a postdoc (before reading the post) and thought to myself...seriously, wtf. Nothing wrong with being a technician, but postdocs definitely do a helluva lot more. Seems like a crock, but how else is one going be competitive in eventually becoming a PI? And what do faculty search committees emphasize in their searches? Publications and grants. Wanna spend time on soft "career development"? Well then you take away from time at the bench producing data and writing papers. The system just doesn't seem to be setup to properly train postdocs to become PIs.

Prof-like Substance said...

You learn nothing as a postdoc, except how to be a good technician. To save your PI time and nervous energy by generating data as quickly and efficiently as possible.

You realize that this is the antithesis of what many of us do with our postdocs, right? Maybe the bio-med labs run like this, but generalizing this to all postdocs is a stretch.

And 10% indirects! HAHAHAHA, yes, let's not extrapolate one situation across all of science. I pay WAY more than that on postdocs, making the difference between paying a tech or a postdoc negligible. If I wanted a tech and to avoid the mentoring stuff that I do with a postdoc, I would pay a freaking tech and save myself a lot of time.

tideliar said...

SUIRAUQA: you're totally right about foregin postdocs being beholden. It's very tough and scary. I was stuck as an H4 for a while...

@Funkdoc: yup. Most postdocs are actively discouraged from gaining any of the skills they will/might actually need.

@PLS: It's unfortunately common in biomed/health mate. and the math are for my institute, postdocs get 9% fringe. Staff/faculty get 37.9%

Thomas Joseph said...

PLS, you still have to babysit a tech ... and depending on the tech, maybe babysit them MORE than you would in mentoring the postdoc.

Since postdocs are TEMP positions, removing them/freeing up salary is a much easier route to take than firing a tech ... which is why so many labs go this route.