The Plight of the Post-Doc


Ph.Dishes - French Onion Soup!

I'm taking a little break from stressing out about my future to bring you a new series, Ph.Dishes (yes, I really am that clever), in which I share with you something awesome that I just cooked, suitable for the scientist's wallet.  Tonight I made French Onion Soup, something that literally everyone in the world likes.

To make this dish, which incorporates all four food groups, you will need the following:

unsalted butter
at least 2 large Vidallia (or sweet) onions (one per person is a good estimate)
dry white wine (whatever crap someone brought to your last party is best)
beef stock (which you can make from scratch for basically no money)
leftover baguette
shredded gruyere, or fontina, or both (kinds of cheese)

1.  Cut the onions in half, and then slice them to ~1/4 inch.  Save the outer peelings in a freezer bag for future chicken or beef stock, an excellent trick I learned from my good friend LM.  Toss the onions in a large stock pot or dutch oven with as much butter as you are comfortable with, but at least 3 tablespoons if you're really serious about this.

2.  Cook the shit out of the onions on med-low heat, adding a hearty dash of kosher salt and a little white pepper and stirring only occasionally, maybe once every 5-10 min.  This is going to take at least half an hour and most likely around 45 minutes or an hour if you want them really super caramelized, so it's a good idea to make yourself a cocktail while you wait.

3.  When you can't stand it anymore and have absolutely got to move on with your life, pour some white wine into the pot, enough to cover the onions.  Turn the heat up and de-glaze the pan, stirring until the wine reduces and thickens, around 5 minutes.

4.  Add the beef stock, enough so that you are pleased with the broth-to-onions ratio, plus a little extra to account for evaporation.  Bring to a boil and turn down the heat, simmering for 15 min.  Set your oven to broil, and move a rack to the top shelf.  You may want to make yourself a salad here, so that you'll have some actual vegetables with your dinner, not just some butter-soaked onions that have had every last trace of nutrients beaten out of them.

5.  Slice your baguette ~3/4 in, but it's not like you need to break out a ruler or anything.  Also, it's totally OK if the baguette is a little stale--it's just going to soak up all that oniony goodness!  Place 2 or more ceramic bowls on a cookie sheet and pour the soup in each one, stopping when the distance between the soup surface and top edge of the bowl equals the thickness of your baguette slices.  Lay however many baguette slices are required to cover the soup on top, and then, with a heavy hand, cover everything with cheese.

6.  Slide the whole sheet into the oven, and broil until the cheese is browned and bubbly. Don't burn yourself on the rack; I did this, and I can tell you first hand--that shit is HOTTT!!!

7.  When the cheese is satisfactorily amazing-looking (trust me, you will just know), remove the cookie sheet and let the soups cool at least 15 min.  You HAVE to do this, or you will have no taste buds left at all, I swear.  Eat your salad; it will distract you.

8.  Have 15 minutes gone by?  Did you eat all your vegetables?  You're sure?  OK, dig in.  Bon Appetit!


Tell me your feelings on the visiting lecturer gig

Though I've totally come to terms with the very likely possibility that I won't get a TT position this year, I continue to search the job boards, albeit with markedly less fervor.  Maybe once a week.  Recently, I've seen a couple of ads for one- or two-year non-tenure track teaching positions at solid-to-excellent liberal arts schools, and I'm just wondering, is this kind of thing a good idea?  For anyone?

Naturally, it would look nice on my CV if the places I apply to in the future value teaching experience.  But I'd imagine it takes at least a year or three (or +++ ???) of teaching any given course to really tighten the screws, so wouldn't I expect my first year evaluations to be sort of, well, bad-ish?  And what is the point of a university investing in a teacher who won't be around long enough to get the course to the awesome level?

Also, since it's a limited engagement, I'd have to spend a good amount of time during that year applying for jobs for the following year, which could take a non-trivial amount of time away from planning 4 courses per semester, no?  And speaking of future positions, I'm wondering what taking a year off from lab work looks like to hiring committees at research-heavy institutions.  Obviously, it's a year with no new publications, which I worry may not be compensated for by the boost in teaching experience. Or will it?

So let's hear it--are there worthwhile benefits to the 1-year teaching position for someone still interested in doing research long-term?


Continuity, or lack thereof

The Scientiae Carnival, if you do not know—and I did not know until only very recently—is a collection of lady science bloggers who pick a topic each month and solicit posts on said topic from other lady science bloggers.  Sometimes men are involved, too.  Whoever is in charge each month organizes the responses on her (or his) own blog, pulling out all the best bits and perhaps providing a bit of commentary.  For an example of a job done extremely well, check out one of my favorite lady science bloggers, Candid Engineer.  Since there haven’t been too many developments in the whole job search thing that I can recount for you, I thought I’d have a go at the March edition, whose theme is “continuity.”

If you could see me right now, you’d see (among other things) that I’m smiling bemusedly.  My bemusement comes from having to ponder, as a young scientist, the idea of continuity in my life, a task I might compare to asking an accountant to write on the theme of “danger.”  Not only is there very little continuity in most of our lives, but we most likely--at least in the beginning--want(ed) it that way.  I distinctly remember that as an undergrad, one of the things that most appealed to me about an academic science career was that for my whole life I’d always be learning something new.  The questions I’d be asking at 25 would be different from those I’d ask at 35, and so on until finally, perhaps at age 95, I’d retire my named chair position and commit myself to catching up on The Sopranos.  I also hoped that maybe I could spend some time living in Paris.  Paris, je t’aime! 

In this respect, science has not let me down.  My quest for discontinuity has led me across the country and back (though not to Paris….yet).  I’ve studied humans, rats, rat brains, rat brain cells, and rat brain cell parts (OK, so perhaps there’s one point of continuity here). And like I imagined, I’ve gotten to ask all kinds of questions, travel, meet new people, and learn just tons.  Discontinuity like this is nice. Similarly, the discontinuity we may encounter in the lab on a daily basis, while often maddening (I can think of a particular method that I would presently like to shoot in the face if methods had faces), can be good in the long run.  It keeps us on our toes, teaches us to adapt, to troubleshoot—all things we need to be awesome scientists.

However, sometimes I want a little continuity, and of course I’m talking about the continuity of money being added to my bank account on a regular basis.  This is good continuity.  And at some point in the not terribly distant future, I’d like the feeling of knowing I’m where I’ll be living until I’m that 95 year-old parked in front of the TV.  These continuities, though…are a current source of worrying.  I don’t know if my boss will have money to keep me around for much more than another year, and I don’t know if I’ll get a TT job by then, either.  Even if I do, I’m headed for some major discontinuity no matter which way you slice it.  It’s both scary and exciting.  All I can do is take advantage of what good continuities and discontinuities I’ve got, and hope I end up in the right place. 


On being a post-doc, generally speaking

Post-docs.  We're everywhere!  We didn't used to be, but now that we are, we have...let's say...varying ideas about what we believe our lives should be like vs. what they are actually like.  Some people think that doing a post-doc is awesome, and some think it is not so awesome.  Some think it's a necessary part of the selection process.  Some wonder whether it's worth doing at all.  

I have some thoughts on my own post-doc experience, but I need to get something out of the way first.  Please, let's not kid ourselves that the post-doc position came about in order to better train future PIs.  Yes, we undeniably get more experience when we spend 3-6 extra years in a lab before we run one, but come on.  It's not as if the Benevolent Gods of Academia were all, "we think it would be really great for you as a person and scientist if you had more training," and people in their late 20s who'd just spent ~5 years in grad school were like, "Hey, FANTASTIC idea!  I'm so glad you have my best interests in mind." No. People started doing post-docs because at a certain point in the last 50 or 60 years, universities (collectively) started giving out more PhDs than they had TT job openings, a situation that only seems to be worsening.  Correcting for things like technological advances and shifts in funding paylines, are today's junior faculty substantially more productive and successful than the junior faculty of the 1950s, most of whom (if not all) came straight from grad school?  Are their labs better run because of their post-doc experiences?  Do they flail less when they first start out?  I have no idea, really, but I sort of doubt it.  

The major question that seems to be coming out of the current post-doc discussions in the blogosphere is this:  

Is doing a post-doc the best of times or the worst of times?  Should we be grateful for the opportunity to have more training, meet more people, see more of the world, and get more done before being completely independent?  Or should we be bitter that despite what geniuses we all are, we're in a low-paying position with no job security--a position whose term is getting even longer?  And is our answer to these questions a product of our own decisions and choices, or is there an element of privilege and luck?

Science-wise, my post-doc years have been great.  My lab is well-funded, I've had lots of freedom when it comes to experiments, and my labmates are brilliant and helpful and fun to be around.  But can I take credit for my situation?  Is it because I "did my homework" and carefully shopped around for a lab that I felt wouldn't take advantage of me?  Not at all; I was insanely lucky.  I'm sort of embarrassed to describe my post-doc search, but here goes: I was maybe 10 months away from graduating, and had just had a sort of big paper come out (I was on TV!).  I sent an email to the person who's arguably #1 in my sub-field, attaching the paper and my CV, and expressing interest in doing a post-doc with him.  He invited me for an interview, and when I was done giving my talk I was told I'd be an excellent match for the lab.  The end.  

Obviously, this is not everyone's experience.  Some people have a real shit time of a post-doc, despite putting in the time visiting labs, talking to people, trying to find a good environment.  And that sucks.  Unfortunately, there are evil bosses everywhere--both in and outside academia--and our ability to avoid or escape them is only partially in our control, especially in a bad economy.

Speaking of the economy/money, there's also this:  We worked so hard!  We are so educated!  We are around 30 years old!  Why can't we afford a normal grown-up life?  This is a valid complaint, and the first person (and all subsequent) who says "you didn't become a scientist to get rich" is banned from my blog FOREVER.  No one is whining about not being able to buy a yacht; it would be nice, though, to feel like I'm making a dent in my undergrad loans.  As it becomes more and more common to have to do one's post-doc well into one's 30s and things like significant others, children, and aging parents necessarily (yes, necessarily) factor into our life decisions, I fear the academic science track might ultimately become what the unpaid internship is for the post-college set: a luxury for people with outside means.  

The major source of most of these problems, like I mentioned earlier, is that there are too many of us.  Why is this not being addressed, though?  Would it fucking kill the NIH to run some stats on PhDs granted vs. assistant professor hires each year, and adjust their grad program training grant awards accordingly?  Or even slightly?  Could we maybe lessen grant support for crazy factory labs with 20 post-docs, only one of whom might get a job because they happened to solve their protein structure first?

I'm not saying that working your way to tenure track shouldn't be competitive or hard. But is the current situation the best for science as a whole?  Or have we gotten to the point where we're not simply letting the cream rise to the top anymore, but selecting for people in a particular set of circumstances, forcing some of what might have been cream to find another churn?


We will not be acting further on your application

There is something so charmingly anachronistic in how, despite the entire application process being electronic, I'm receiving hand-signed letters of rejection in my mailbox.  I'm all for the personal touch, but really, why bother?  It costs money--both in stamps and in high-quality watermarked university letterhead--and time; 497 signatures simply cannot, nor should be, done in one sitting.  Carpal tunnel, you know (though you could always blame it on the sex).  Plus it's bad for the environment, as I am not one of those people who keep their rejection letters as some sort of ironic trophy.  My most recent is on a barge to a New Jersey landfill, I am sure of it.

To date, the number of official no-thank-you's is a surprisingly small two, but I can't imagine that this is an accurate representation of the number of departments that have decided not to act further on my application.  Or does everyone send these letters?  I had sort of presumed that the radio silence from, well, everywhere else was an indication that They're Just Not That Into Me, but should I still be holding out some hope?  Fat lady sings, etc?

Feel free to answer these questions in the comments without regard to my feelings or whatever. I've come to the full realization that I really have no idea how any of this works, because it's different everywhere.  All I can do is get my work done and try to put another manuscript together by the time the next hiring cycle comes around......or is there something else I can do?  Again, fire away!