Postdoc Oversupply…

On a tweet from @David_Dobbs I found this article in the World View column of the journal Nature by Jennifer Rohn entitled ‘Give Postdocs a Career Not Empty Promises”  (Published online 2 March 2011 | Nature 471, 7 (2011) | doi:10.1038/471007a).

One of Jennifer’s points is that we have an over-abundance of post docs, too little funding for them (only going to get worse, BTW), and a vanishingly small number of faculty positions for them:

“In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.”

Quite. I’m with you 100% Jennifer. Thanks for bringing up this topic and I read your solution with interest:

“This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.”

“Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee.”

I’ve seen labs that have professional post-docs or senior scientists that act as lieutenants in the group – they do their own project, manage training of a grad student, and run certain aspects of the lab- and are completely scientifically and intellectually engaged with the PI. We already have a professional career track for such individuals, usually bestowed upon them when they are deemed ready for grant-writing,  and it is has the title “Assistant Professor for Research” and sometimes “Assistant Professor, non-tenure track”, and sometimes ‘Instructor’.

And long-term these ‘Assistant Professor (R)’ positions are costly and unstable. The current NIH guideline for postdoc salaries for postdocs with 7 or more years experience is an annual salary of $52K. Add benefits to that and you are talking in the neighborhood of 70K/year in total compensation for a very experienced postdoc. And this number will only rise as years of experience rise. Start approaching 80-90K per year in total compensation and this is a big, big chunk of a single NIH grant. if the modular budgetary limitation of $250K/year applies. Furthermore, these positions are unstable when tied to the PIs research support- in that they last only 4-5 years- the length of a typical NIH grant. This grant uncertainty would make it very hard to keep that highly trained person that holds an important part of the lab’s scientific memory around for longer than that. This ‘instability’ issue  has been discussed previously by Drugmonkey, who suggests that there may already be existing funding mechanism models (using the K05 as a model) that could be used to fund the salaries of such career research scientists. Maybe.

As for institutions chipping in with salary lines and such- while this is a lovely idea- it just doesn’t seem practical right now. Getting institutions to pay the salaries of their tenure track and tenured faculty these days is a challenge. The medical school standard in the US (and I fear that this is for generous institutions) is that they currently pay only 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s salary anyway. This is 1/2 a position. In the current economic downturn lecturers, instructors, and non- tenure track faculty are being laid off.

Anyway- I think Jennifer is on the right track that we have a postdoc oversupply- but I think we need to get down to the root causes. We are making too many post docs because we train too many graduate students. Right now every department I know of is running around madly recruiting young, fresh faced, un-aware of the rat race of science graduate student candidates. I see the numbers- 15 recruits here, 20 recruits there, 35 recruits somewhere else.   I see all of this in the face (as Jennifer points out) of a dearth of tenure track faculty positions, reduced state funding in many places for education, and rock bottom NIH pay lines. So far I haven’t heard too much rational discussion about why we train the numbers of graduate students that we do- and any thoughts on where we expect these bright kids to go when they leave our programs. Do we have  to train 50 students for each one who eventually makes it into a TT position, or could we be amazingly selective, train fewer and get a higher percentage into great post docs and eventually have those two gain tenure track positions? (I’m waiting for the sports analogy).



44 thoughts on “Postdoc Oversupply…

  1. Bottom line- the reason we train people isn’t to have suitable candidates. We don’t have 50 students because anyone thinks we will need 50 PhDs to find one faculty member. We have 50 students because:
    1) it’s necessary for institutions to train a certain # to get their carnegie research classification (we need to change this to %)
    2) you (as a professor) need the cheap labor

    If you recognize that the economics make institutions unlikely to cough up the support for long-term research posts, why do you think it’s likely they will voluntarily cut themselves off from the labor force of grad students and postdocs?

  2. I think a better solution is to start training grad students for more than just an academic career. Make it known to them that there are careers in scientific writing, administration, government, law, consulting, industry, and secondary education. I understand the current model depends on academics, which is why we have so many grad students funneling into this career path. But most large universities have adjunct professors that teach classes outside of the academic realm to undergrads. Could we not have similar grad elective courses in intellectual property, business, and education?

  3. One thing that speaks to this trend is that this is all occurring despite trainees having more information than ever before. The internet and the (gradual) influx of young, more finger-on-the-pulse professors both mean that students are more eyes-wide-open than ever before, and know the odds of getting a faculty job (or many other jobs) are low in science right now. I wish there was some metric to measure how more aware of the general issues facing the field newbies are, but it is certainly much higher now than ever before. So why the ever-increasing training pool? Is it wishful thinking on the part of the trainee? Selfish motives on the part of the PI’s? The job market driving people to seek crappy-but-somewhat-secure “jobs” as grad students and postdocs? I decline to believe that it is solely because they don’t understand their realistic career prospects…

  4. We train so many grad students because we need them to do the dirty work of the grants we need funded to stay in our tenure-track positions. (And to make matters worse, in my field we actually need more students to do the work than we have grant money from which to pay them.) At my university, you are called to task by the dean for any proposal that does not include RA support for graduate students.

    I love mentoring graduate students, but I wish it were feasible to get stable funding for one or two experienced technicians in each lab. As someone who mostly advises MS students, by the time they are fully functional, they are gone. I could be much more productive with someone who knows what they are doing from the get-go and isn’t going to disappear in 24 months. (And I could still advise students, and actually let them develop their own research plans.) But as you note, finding that mythical stable funding source isn’t going to happen, and so I’m recruiting a new cadre of fresh faced grad students to do my dirty work. At least, as MS degree recipients in my field they have more diverse career prospects that PhD students.

  5. I think that Dr. O is on the right track…however, my immediate gut reaction is will training grad students in other areas compromise their ability to produce the data that I need them to produce? Selfish, yes. Practical, probably. Sustainable, no.

  6. Very provocative post, DrdrA. Sadly, students and postdocs have been whispering about this dirty little secret for over a decade and not much been done about it, most likely because the solutions are difficult and there are some inherent conflicts of interest at play. I also find it interesting that we have record numbers of applications for our graduate program despite the dismal long term career prospects. I have to wonder if this is because graduate education is free and additionally provides a stipend for doing really fun work, so there is strong incentive for young scientists that in the short term counters the long term poor career prospects. Dr. O has a point that we could probably all do a better job training our students to be competitive in many different arenas besides academia. The major barrier we have encountered to preparing students for business, education, etc, is who will teach those classes? We PIs were trained to do research and I certainly could not teach a class on how to suceed in the business world. That’s not a huge barrier; in fact, we do try to offer these classes with the generous cooperation of local industry leaders. A bigger problem is that even when you include all of these additional career pathways, there are still not a lot of positions for Ph.D.s.

    Institutions/faculty as a whole are unlikely to control the uptake of students into the system, since as pointed out already, they are viewed by some as a source of “cheap” labor (not really that cheap; students at my institution cost over 50K$ per year when stipend, tuition and benefits are included). NIH could control this problem if they cared to by only allowing students to be supported from training grants, not R01s. I’m sure investigators would squawk, but too bad. This would free up some funds to be used for “staff” positions, i.e., senior bench scientists beyond the postdoc position. Susan Gerbi at Brown, among others, has been advocating for many years the idea that we need to expand academic opportunities at the senior scientist level for people who are terrific bench scientists that may not want to run a lab. These people are incredibly valuable resources and have much to contribute to science, but there is not much room for them. Unfortunately, until the budget woes change, the high salary cost that these folks would impose on a grant make that idea a non-starter.

  7. @Dr.Mrs.M – Most grad programs require elective courses after students finish their first year of core courses. I don’t think it would take much more time out of their schedule if they could substitute these alternative career courses for the mainstream electives.

  8. @BugDoc – The resources for these types of courses are already available at most institutions, largely without going outside the available faculty. At large undergrad unis, contributions can come from business schools, colleges of education, and law schools. At med/professional schools, the angle could lean more towards clinical laboratory courses. It just requires the program (and faculty) to think outside the box and collaborate with other schools at the institution. More time? Yes. But it’s our responsibility to ensure a graduate education means something more than a very narrow shot at tenure track. Graduate students at many if not most institutions are starting to find the time to put these programs together; they shouldn’t be going it alone.

  9. @Dr O…excellent points! I have seen advertising for teaching only post-docs and industry post-docs, but I don’t feel that there are that many posting for these types of ‘alternative’ post-docs. Since I headed into tt academia, I don’t know if I didn’t come across more postings b/c I wasn’t looking for them. My point is that if these positions are rare, they really don’t need to be. If we are going to diversify at the graduate level, there needs to be diversity at the post-doc level as well.

  10. A decade, bugdoc? At least two. We were doing the trainee/Prof math when I entered grad school. We just “knew” our awesomeness was going to make us the ones to get a job…

  11. Wait, postdoc benefits come out of the grant, too? That doesn’t sound right, I thought benefits were at the disposal of the institution?

    inre postdoc oversupply: meh, I am still not taken with the belief that the glut of postdocs is related to the US producing too many PhDs. In fact, I think US-minted PhD production is probably under the sustainable level required to cover current research productivity should the US competitiveness for overseas workers be significantly challenged. I certainly don’t think there should be a move to influence domestic PhD production until there’s a better idea of how competitive China (and perhaps India) is really going to be in the immediate future (When I recently heard about the package a postdoc colleague had received from a research institute in his home province in China, I damn near fell off my chair).

    Even with foreign postdocs taken into account and in the current funding climate, btw, it’s still not uncommon to hear anecdotes about PIs at prestigious universities in flyover country having a hard time filling all of their available positions. Geographical bias is not a strong sign of a workforce’s desperation.

    Right now,I think the NIH has far graver concerns in terms of sustaining the number of PIs on a budget that may see a slight decrease. But then, even this might problem might be relaxed a little bit by a broadening of global competition, and certain other countries starting to lure back their lost talent.

  12. DSKS – Every dime of my postdoc’s benefits come out of my grant. The institution does not cover these costs. Same for grad students.

    I suppose I’m less concerned about grad students finding positions as postdocs- than I am about postdocs finding faculty positions….. which, right now, are practically non-existent in my area- and I don’t see that that is going to be any different anytime in the near future.

  13. This is exactly the type of job I want and have known I wanted it for years. I am nearing the end of my PhD, and I went to grad school because I love doing the reasearchy stuff. I have never aspired to be a TT professor, as I don’t care for classroom teaching or all the business/administrative and service responsibilities that are associated with being a PI. Also, PI’s are usually SO stressed out and get all nostalgic about their postdoc years when I mention my career aspirations. I enjoy the other stuff: bench work (PI’s don’t even do this one anymore!), writing proposals and papers, reading literature, designing research, mentoring lab members – basically all the lab-related parts of the PI’s job, (while not having to give up bench work, which I LOVE).

    I know some people have this type of job, but it’s NOT a common first-choice career-goal for trainees. I feel like I’m trying to do this weird thing than people only do when they are trying to or failing to get a PI position. It doesn’t help that I’m currently at a small school. I may or may not have been competitive for the PI jobs had I decided to take that track, but I don’t much care, nor have I prepared myself for such a job. I’ve tried to groom myself for the job I want, by learning as much as I can about the stuff I think I’d really be doing (including grant writing). I haven’t TAd since undergrad.

    I’m scared that I’ll never get my dream job(s). I know that no PI is going to take a chance on employing me in such a position until I’ve proved myself as a postdoc for a while. My fantasy (I know it’s probably not realistic) is to get hired as a postdoc for a promising rookie prof (K99!?!?!?), basically help hir set up the lab, get hot prelim data, help secure funding, and transition from trainee into the senior scientist right-hand-woman as the PI’s career progresses. I want to be the second fiddle. I know the reality will more likely be a sometimes tenuous funding situation, switching labs when the $ runs low, get replaced by cheap trainees, or the PI retires or fails to obtain tenure/grants. I’m hoping to scrap together something that is somewhat stable, and that someone will think I’m valuable enough to employ because I can function as lab lietuenant. I will be invested because I’ll be intellectually engaged, and I’m not trying to bolt with my own ideas to form my own lab. Of course, if I get to the point where I can support myself from my own grants (I think this really COULD happen), I don’t think it will be a tough sell to the PI to keep me on. I’m just not comfortable with banking my entire future on my own ability for the next several decades to obtain independent funding. That’s what PIs do.

    Is this a realistic career plan?

  14. Hey icee,
    Don’t get discouraged! Biggest trap that you will ever fall into. For example, I am a very green TT asst prof. If I found someone with your interests and qualifications AND in my FOI, I would flip out and do a happy dance on my lab bench. If you keep your eyes open, use your network, you will land in a comfortable spot–or near enough to be satisfied. In my FOI, there is a woman, who is very talented. She ran a core for years and has been gradually getting back into her own research. She publishes beautiful studies and writes small grants-you never know what different sorts of opportunities are out there, until you start really looking.

  15. The 5 students that I have in my upper level immunology course don’t even know their amino acids. This is at a top 20 med school, and the paper we were reviewing made extensive use of mutational analysis. If upper level students can’t be bothered to learn something as basic (and necessary) as amino acid structure, they don’t deserve future jobs. In one sense, the system works because these people are weeded out.

    I’d like to hear people’s opinions on what percentage of entering grad students in umbrella graduate programs actually have the ability to ultimately be PIs or high level industry types. I suspect 5-10% going in. If this is the case, the weeding out needs to begin much sooner (like the second year of college as happens with pre-meds).

  16. Oh…and yes, the PI pays for benefits. The school gives nothing.

  17. You know another reason for PhD over-supply? I teach in a department that doesn’t have a grad program. But when we write grant applications for research*, though we can’t talk about a grad program we CAN (and do) talk about how many students we send on to PhD programs. And the funding agencies eat this up.

    The whole system is set up to over-produce PhD’s and postdocs, at every rung.

    *I maintain that research is a perfectly appropriate activity for people who work with undergrads, and involving undergrads in research is a perfectly fine way to teach them things about science that they wouldn’t learn in classes. That does not mean they must then go to a PhD program.

  18. The entire system is in a downward spiral. One professor wouldn’t need 10 PhD students to do research if they didn’t have to spend 80% of their time writing grants. But you need the grants to get tenure. In order to get more publications, you need more students, which means you need more money, which means you need to write more grants.

    Sure, the postdoc system as it is right now is broken for science fields. Seeing that statistic of 7+ year postdocs was scary. If i had to postdoc for more than 3, i’d just go into industry.

    But this issue minor compared to the funding issue. If you fix the funding issue, you will inherently fix the grad student/postdoc supply issues.

  19. Yes. This. And it makes me so angry I could spit.

    I’m in the UK and it’s all going to hell in a handbasket here. The funding has been cut to the bone and so the odds on getting a postdoc job after your PhD have got even worse than they were before – and they were never great. Every position I have applied for has had 30-40 applications. For ONE post. I can’t entirely blame the PIs for looking at applications from more experienced postdocs and choosing them over me, but I definitely blame the system.

    I’m the only one of my friends and colleagues who is still trying to get a job in academia. The rest have sold out where they can, not because they don’t like research, but because they have no other option. I’m only still hanging on (barely) because the work I do has no analogue in industry. (I’m an evolutionary biologist…) If I can’t find a position soon, I’ll bail too.

    I am not untalented. Neither are my friends. We all have good degrees from one of the best universities in the world. What we can’t do is compete successfully against researchers with four extra years of experience – at least under the current system. Where employability is a function of number of papers + years of experience, newly-minted PhDs will always lose.

    I don’t believe either that this system “weeds out” less-promising PhDs.* At the moment it seems to weed out everyone, which in turn creates a nice hole in the flow of new talent coming in. Maybe in a few years it’ll be really easy to get a postdoc position, because we’ll all have gone elsewhere. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to wait that long.

    Oh, and DSKS? Some of us have good reasons for “geographical bias”. Another aspect of the current postdoc game which makes me furious is the tacit understanding that I will just up sticks and move city, country, or even continent for two years of grant money. I have a partner. I have a mortgage. I do not want to spend the next six years (conservative estimate) of my life scrambling after the next grant and preparing to move house every 24 months. Guess what? As researchers get older and spend longer as postdocs, there’s going to be lots more like me.

    It is time for a change. Any suggestions from the experienced researchers I see here? 😉

    *If the system actually worked, PhDs who do not have the potential to become independent academics would be removed during their PhD. Preferably at the end of their first year with no hard feelings. That’s what the first year report is FOR. (American systems may vary…) However, I know the system doesn’t in fact work this way. Perhaps grad students are too useful to the lab heads as lab rats…?

  20. Those who are in favor of steep culling prior to grad training or during grad training…

    Suppose it is a 50% reduction. Are these really your current competition? The laziest, stupidest half of the distribution? Do you really think the dumbasses are somehow still competitive for faculty jobs, years later?

    Also, why do you all assume *you* would have made the grade?

  21. icee,

    Not saying I am promising at all, but I would give my left hand in sacrifice without blinking for someone with your view. I wouldnt even take time sharpening the hack/bludgeon/toothbrush with which I would do it.

    On the other hand, DrdrA’s point is extremely valid, but also provocative, and rightly so: ultimately, we train increasing numbers of PG’s essentially because if we don’t, our productivity ratio would diminish. This strats the spiral of career death. It is a vicious circle.


  22. I left a longer comment at DrugMonkey here, but I just wanted to repeat that my fear is that if we restrict admissions to PhD programs, we will go backwards on the progress we have made towards diversity. Tightening admissions requirements would screw over the disadvantaged in our society. I would much, much rather allow people to make their own choices and roll the dice on a TT job if they so desire.

  23. Also, why do you all assume *you* would have made the grade?

    I don’t assume this.

    I won some money gambling once, but I don’t encourage people to spend their lives in the House of the Rising Sun.

  24. Due to the bleak outlook of the postdoc to PI carreer path I took the first chance to go directly into industry after completing my PhD. I am very glad I made that decision. I work a 40-50 hour week with most weekends off and get to spend lots of time with my wife and kids. This is successful to me, near perfect balance between work and personal life.

    It is not the only one but there is a foreign influence on the availability of postdoc positions in the US. This applies to Grad programs as well as Med School programs too. Other countries are churning out Ph.D’s too and sending many to the US for training followed by taking them back after completion. This is good on a global level but it is not helping science in the US. I just think we should take care of our own citizens in the US first.

  25. Drugmonkey- The laziest, stupidest half of the distribution? Do you really think the dumbasses are somehow still competitive for faculty jobs, years later?

    WHY are we training the laziest, stupidest 1/2 at all?

  26. Because they can still perform basic tasks with their hands.

    Also, “The PI’s department is a leader in training students, graduating an average of N students per year (placing it in the top X% nationally) is nice in a Broader Impact statement.

  27. I would imagine that this could be a situation, if anyone wanted, to fix. Every year I fill out a questionnaire from the NSF about my post-graduate school experiences. The thing is several pages long and asks me about my current career, salary, etc. I think it would be an easy enough process for the NIH, and any other funding agency, to extract that data and apply a “success rate” for each university. Universities that rate low, get penalized in some form or fashion which translates into low ratings mean less dollars. Money talks, and I bet the practice of using students as indentured servants rather than apprentices, would change practically overnight.

    Such metrics are commonplace in the NCAA (you hear about graduate rates every year come March Madness), why can’t they be for NIFA, NSF, and NIH?

  28. Here it is:

    Make PIs pay grad student tuition and stipends out of their lab budgets. Immediately, an experienced, competent scientist becomes cost effective, and the glut of PhDs is reduced.

  29. Miko:

    Most PIs that Iknow ALREADY pay the tuition of their grad students off of the only budget that they have, their NIH, NSF or other federal grant.

  30. Huh… not at my institution. So PIs where you are pay for the tuition and compensation for grad students (stipend, insurance)?

    This raises the question of why anyone would ever want a grad student in their lab, unless they are unable to attract postdocs, given that a postdoc is ~$10k more and ~4 times better. Which makes me suspicious that many PIs are really paying the cost of having a grad student.

  31. @drugmonkey
    “Also, why do you all assume *you* would have made the grade?”
    Who cares? What kind of argument is that against the observation that we are producing too many PhDs (and I would say probably 5-fold too many, not 2-fold) relative to how many jobs there are requiring the training and expertise that should come with a PhD? A condescending one, that’s what kind.

  32. @miko: “This raises the question of why anyone would ever want a grad student in their lab, unless they are unable to attract postdocs, given that a postdoc is ~$10k more and ~4 times better.”

    Some of us like working with students! They bring a wonderful excitement and energy to the lab (at least the good ones). I would agree that a terrific postdoc is a great colleague and more efficient that many students, but some postdocs never reach the level of the best grad students I’ve had. And for another data point, like drdrA, PIs at my institution are responsible for stipends, tuition and insurance. Most colleagues I know at large research intensive universities like mine work under the same system. Some of our students are paid from training grants, but these are competitive, so not all students can be paid this way.

  33. Miko-

    Yes. We pay stipend, insurance, AND the tuition of our students. I think that is not uncommon (see bugdoc’s comment).

  34. Miko,
    I am at a smallish research institution, the only grad student that we get for *free* is our first. The others, we pay stipend, insurance and tuition. And if we have grant money, then we pay for our first as well. (You can cash in on the $$ later if you are in between grants).

    As a brand spanking new TT assistant prof, I don’t have a project that a post-doc can take-not this early. ALSO, because I am green, I wouldn’t necessarily be a good launching pad for someone who wants to go on the TT path. I am thoroughly enjoying my undergrads, who are surprisingly very productive, and I am waiting for the fresh batch of grad students….

  35. “DSKS – Every dime of my postdoc’s benefits come out of my grant. The institution does not cover these costs. Same for grad students.”

    I been schoolified. Is that the same for matching % pension contributions?

    @ ELJ,
    “Oh, and DSKS? Some of us have good reasons for “geographical bias””

    Sure, I daresay v. few people don’t have good reasons for being limited in this respect. But the economic reality simply does not, and for the most part cannot, accommodate for those reasons, compelling though they might be.

    “I have a partner. I have a mortgage. I do not want to spend the next six years (conservative estimate) of my life scrambling after the next grant and preparing to move house every 24 months. Guess what? As researchers get older and spend longer as postdocs, there’s going to be lots more like me.

    It is time for a change. Any suggestions from the experienced researchers I see here? 😉 “

    Get the hell out, dude. I’m serious. You don’t appear to be enjoying yourself anymore; the idea that you would be moving postdocs every 2yrs tells me that the funding situation in your field is even worse than the average (either that or your work is not valued sufficiently for a PI to keep you on); and you have expressed an aversion to one of the primary functions of an investigator, justifying and applying for money to fund your research. Something that is now going to be expected for post-“tenure” faculty as well as everyone else. Scrambling? Jings, you wait a couple of years when the NIH budget’s fall against inflation really starts to bite. And that’s not even figuring the consequences of a Republican senate in 2012 (or the further austerity measures planned by the coalition Blighty-side).

    Churning out science PhDs isn’t the problem (failing to convince enough Americans to go that route is likely to be a bigger problem for the US). It’s a good, rounded education experience and a degree that is still highly valued in the private sector. As it is, from my perspective on an early careers committee, most of the new batch are well-tuned to what’s going on and they are navigating their careers accordingly. Rolling up the ladder to save ourselves from possible competition and consequently taking the choice of a pursuing a particular degree out of their hands is a bit cheeky and self-serving, imho.

  36. Well, if the point is to get whoever “wants it” most rather than the best science practitioners (not remotely the same thing), we could do it a lot more simply: just get a local radion station to see who can stand with their hand on a centrifuge without going to the bathroom or sleeping the longest. It would save the NIH and hiring committees a lot of effort.

  37. @miko: “Well, if the point is to get whoever “wants it” most rather than the best science practitioners (not remotely the same thing)”

    I wouldn’t be too sure of that. It’s true that just wanting to succeed badly does not automatically mean that you are the best scientist. In my experience, the people who are very smart AND want it most are the ones who care enough about their experiments to do a lot of them and do them right. Those are the students and postdocs that I want. I support people going into whatever career path they are excited about, but whatever that is (industry, academia, teaching, etc) any employer is hoping for the really smart AND motivated people.

  38. I’m not opposed to being motivated, I’m more referring to the arbitrary, non-meritocratic forms of selection: e.g. willingness to disregard family or derail your spouse’s career, single-mindedness, risk-averseness. These traits are all heavily rewarded, and none speak to potential or ability as a creative scientist. We are good at producing busy little low-hanging fruit harvesters. In fact, this seems to be what most NIH study sections actively reward.

    But that’s all beside the point, the driving cause of postdoc angst is that it’s preparation for careers that don’t exist. Cheap labor disguised as “training” prevents basic research from being a profession (especially now that companies have figured out they don’t have to do any basic research–the taxpayers will pay for it and they will still get to sell the results through “translational” partnerships). Imagine a corporation where the only full time employees are management, everyone else is a temp… it would be a disaster and wouldn’t last in a competitive market, but that’s what we do. The private sector is far, far better at identifying, retaining, and nurturing talent than academia.

    I’m doing well in academia and have every reason to think I have a shot at a PI job, so it’s not sour grapes or anything, but the system makes Starbucks policies look like labor advocacy. Having worked in private companies, academia’s general lack of administrative competence, the archaic fiefdoms, the abysmal human resource management, it’s just kind of permanently shocking. On the other hand, companies are boring.

  39. “Imagine a corporation where the only full time employees are management, everyone else is a temp… it would be a disaster and wouldn’t last in a competitive market, but that’s what we do. “
    This is a a valid point. In my Mom’s line of work, it was just the opposite. All the job security went to the lower paid, lower prestige workers (thanks to a union). All the money, and the risk, went to management.
    I never really thought before about how backasswards academia is comparatively. Most likely we need to organize. Assuming that hasn’t been made a capital offense in your state, yet.

    “Starbucks policies look like labor advocacy”
    Actually, given their commitment to giving healthcare for anyone who works 20 hours a week AND their lack of insistence that anyone being paid for 20 hours actually work 70, working at starbucks is actually looking pretty good to me right now.

  40. I’m off the grid but I’ll say this much. I remember a job pep-talk given by some AH from industry back in 2003 at a major annual meeting. He made the comment, “You make your own luck.” He must have been making novel inorganic complexes or something. What I wouldn’t give for a run on Utah beach with that little twit. I can just see him -after cleaning the crap out of his pants- telling his CO at the first glimpse of surviving the campaign “Yea, I made my own luck! I’m no dumbass!” I don’t think war screens for quite the level of arrogance, even in an AH. I can just hear his CO: “OK, Sherlock. You made your own luck. See that machine gun nest over there? It’s all yours. We don’t quite have as much control over our luck and we wouldn’t want any of it to rub off on ya.” Do you “non-dumbasses” who made the grade ever ask yourselves what kind of really creative soul -one who is even remotely connected socially- would spend half their life chasing a 60/40 chance of not landing a job after getting a PhD? It just confirms my original theory that jazz musicians are the real geniuses and you boys are bitter little vindictive nerds who become real monsters when mother nature randomly pisses some small tidbit of truth your way. The thing is, where’s the beef? Tell me where the new frontier is, Sherlock. The last decade looks like the dark ages compared to any decade since the 1800s.

  41. The point is this: Gifted and balanced people have always excelled at being well connected and the internet makes it that much easier. If you screen people in advance, as the medical professions do, you will attract the kind of talent medicine attracts. A careful young person who really wants to do research is far better off getting an MD, and then perhaps a PhD with it, or later. That way, the PROFESSIONAL can tell the tyranical blood sucking geek knob whose lab they stepped in to GFTS, and -at minimum- collect decent pay for practicing medicine. But, as it is, you get a huge influx of folks from foreign countries where free thinkers who dare to independently utilize their own minds sometimes get run over with tanks. I’m not being biggoted here either. The simple fact is that if you want science, it hasn’t historically been found where tyranny is the unspoken rule. Look at you. You can’t even identify yourselves. Good grief. When I find posts from disgruntled postdocs who are still hoping, it’s like they are talking in code. Completely gagged and repressed.

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