The Plight of the Post-Doc


Show me the money! (a chat with Francis Collins)

First off, I have to give a giant hat-tip to Scicurious, Kristen, Mike Pascoe, and the rest of the official Neurobloggers.  You guys are doing an amazing job covering some of the best parts of the conference, and I was wondering if I could maybe score some of whatever it is you're taking?  Seriously,  I'm so freaking exhausted every day I can hardly manage to order my dinner, let alone write a coherent and insightful synopsis of all the cool science I saw, so, well done!

Anyway, so you've been enjoying the first half of SfN, checking out posters, having Deep Intellectual Conversations, and listening to awe-inspiring talks by world-class scientists.  But all the while, something in the back of your mind has been nagging you--what is Dr Becca's Big Secret???  It's time to tell you.  You're ready.

A few days ago I was invited to be part of a small post-doc panel that would meet for an hour with Francis Collins, new Obama-appointed director of the NIH.  Apparently Dr Collins wanted to hear from the Scientists of the Future regarding our deepest desires general thoughts and concerns, and so 10 of us sat down with him and several NIH division heads this morning to discuss.  Naturally, I was very excited to be included in this meeting, given that I've had much on my mind lately re: becoming a Scientist of the Future.

Dr Francis was super friendly and warm and nice, and seemed to genuinely care about what we had to say.  The conversation started out benignly enough with some chit-chat about the state of connectomes and other databases and how useful they will be to Scientists of the Future, but during the discussion I couldn't suppress the thoughts in my brain that were saying, "can't anyone talk about databases?  Aren't we here because we're post-docs, in one of the trickiest and most precarious positions any scientist will be in?  Let's talk about me and my problems!"

Other panel members seemed to have the same internal monologue as I did, because it wasn't long before we were all demanding money left and right--better benefits with training grants, cost of living considerations in stipend minimums (as a New Yorker, I said a real "Amen!" when this was brought up), improved funding opportunities for senior post-docs and junior faculty, and financial incentives for engaging in scientific outreach.   

I was waiting for the moment when one of the division heads would burst and call us out on the greedy, whiny, entitled bitches we were making ourselves out to be, but that moment never came.  They actually seemed to be listening to us--our problems aren't new ones, and they're already taking real positive steps to try to fix some of them.  R01 submissions from first-time applicants are now being evaluated separately (and slightly more leniently) from those of more established PIs, in hopes of bringing down the statistic that the average age for new PIs to get their first R01 is currently a staggering 42 (I asked Dr Collins straight up, "what am I supposed to do for nine years??).  They've also created the P30 grants, which are given to universities to create junior faculty positions.  This, I think, is a great idea, and one of the openings I've applied for is funded in this way.

Some of the other points are a little further away from being solved, but not once did anyone tell us that our concerns and suggestions were unrealistic.  Of course, an hour is not nearly enough time for a Scientist of the Future to unload all of her hopes, dreams, and fears on the most powerful man in American health research, but I think the fact that he even took the time to get this together is a sign of good things to come.

It goes without saying that it would have been a lot more awesome if things went down like this:

Collins:  What can I do to make post-docs' lives and careers better?
Us:  Give us money and jobs, please.
Collins:  OH!!!  Is that it??  I had no idea it would be so easy!  Done and Done.
Us:  Sweet.

< high-five >


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I think the fact that he even took the time to get this together is a sign of good things to come.

I hate to be a dick, but the fact that a government bureaucrat held a one-hour meeting to "listen to concerns" doesn't mean jack diddly fucking squat about what things are to come.

Becca said...

I know, but I am TRYING to be OPTIMISTIC, here... It's not like it didn't occur to me that this was probably just a photo-op, but at the same time, who does he need to impress, really?

And OK, if we can't change things by talking face-to-face with the director of the NIH, how do things change?

Anonymous said...

High fiving the director of the NIH would have been a career defining moment though.

Just not sure whether it would be in the good or bad direction...

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with CPP. Change we need, and all that jazz. How did you even get picked to do this? In my experience, they tend to pick the least disgruntled, most already-successful (did you say you have a K99?), and this way they get the least venomous complaints.

I care a lot less about salary than I do about a structure that prevents PIs from exploiting postdocs as slave labor to the extent that they can't even apply for independent funding or jobs.

Becca said...

@Ms.PhD, it's my understanding that this was organized really last minute. Someone from NIH emailed my PI, who's on like a million SfN committees, whether he knew of a post-doc who's "highly articulate and thoughtful" and could contribute to a conversation on "scientific, funding, and career concerns." He picked me.

If they were looking for people who were non-disgruntled and successful, they failed miserably. Not everyone on the panel spoke, but those who did had some pretty clear issues, most of which concerned our prospects of securing jobs and being able to support ourselves and our families.

I don't have a K99--I applied, but the proposal was unscored (see blog posts "well, that sucked" and "summary statement summary" for details).

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