The Plight of the Post-Doc

2.15.2010

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?

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

as a finishing phd student, coming from a top instiution, who is about to start my post-doc at the end of the year, these are my thoughts:

1) while i have learned a tremendous amount during my phd. i know how to design and execute experiments, write papers, and have some knowledge in writing a grant. i still feel like post-doctoral training would serve me well, just for the opportunity to increase my expertise in a wider variety of techniques. i feel like i wouldn't be able to explore the questions that i am interested in asking (should i ever be fortunate enough to run my own lab) with just the training that i have had so far. i also see like a cross-disciplinary field as neuroscience increasing demands spending more time to widen that breath of expertise. obviously 3 years of training seems reasonable, where as 5-6+ is probably unnecessary.

2) i don't think limiting the amount of phds will change anything. half of my class is going into industry anyways. although, i agree that thesis committees need to be more rigorous in granting phds. there are a fair number of students who really don't deserve their phds.

2) when i look at the post-docs in my department, i can really only say that 10% of them really deserve to become professors. it's not that the rest aren't doing incredibly sexy stuff or anything, it's primarily a combination of inefficiency, lacking creativity, passion, or the the ability to mentor people. these are the qualities you need to be able to run a lab properly and be successful at it. for someone to process all of these qualities is quite rare.

3) all of this might sound elitist, but i think this "weeding out" process is actually a good thing. in comparing the pool of job candidates that have come through our department this year versus previous years, there is a significant difference in the quality. i feel that they are the ones those who are truly stuck it all despite the economic crisis and other things. and to be honest, there is a lot of shitty, low-quality science out there. "lowering" the bar wouldn't be a good thing.

4) the population is increasing. resources are limited. that's life. deal with it. obviously, it would great if more funding would be provided in academia but that's unlikely to change much as a % of GDP.

5) american society is increasingly built upon instant gratification. including research results, funding application and allocation, and everyone's sense of entitlement for their "dream job".

CONCLUSION: everyone just needs to learn how be patient

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Anon, thanks for your many comments. Just to clarify, I am in no way suggesting that we lower the bar, nor am I arguing against a "weeding out" process. My point is that a) the weeding out should take place at an earlier stage--like you say, there are lots of post-docs out there who have no business being on an academic track. Wouldn't you say it's a failure of the system that they got to where they are in the first place, not having been weeded out before? My other point is that people are now being weeding out for the wrong reasons, and that because of a mis-distribution of funds on the part of the NIH, even those people who ARE qualified to be TT by even the highest standards are not all getting jobs.

Thise said...

I've noticed several postdocs/grad students with unrealistic expectations about the future -- in particular the likelihood of landing a desired TT job. As mentioned above, I wonder if part of it seems to be an unwillingness of mentors/colleagues/committee members to be honest about whether they think the candidate is up to it. With good reason I suppose.. do you really want to quash someone's dreams when they might yet come round? Plus, need bodies in the lab etc. So, if this is true, how can a grad student/postdoc get an honest, expert assessment of one's chances?

(Also, what can sometimes seem like "random reinforcement" of who gets the next discovery and how big it is probably doesn't help in people staying around.. it's like gambling, they think the jackpot is just around the corner!)

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Really good points, Thise.

I saw Avatar (again) last night, and there's a scene in the beginning where the crazy army dude is briefing all the new recruits that I feel is relevant here. He says, "My job is to keep you alive. I will not succeed."

Wouldn't it be interesting if, on the first day of grad school, our mentors said something like, "Our job is to train you to be us. We will not succeed. Some of you will leave here for industry, some for consulting, some for law school, etc." But of course, it's not really in their best interest to say something like that, and perhaps a bigger question is, do they even owe us that? What are our mentors' obligations when they're paying us to go to school?

Luisito said...

I must absolutely agree with Anonymous. I think he hit the points right on.

Michael Hultström said...

I'm going to borrow a leaf from Godess Isis's book and say that Anon's idea of patience only works for those PhDs, Post-docs etc. who are already privileged. You don't have to be a lean mean hunting machine if you're sitting in the middle of an ocean of chocolate pudding.

Anonymous said...

i would say that if you are doing a phd or a post-doc in an academic environment and are able to draw a modest stipend from public money, you are already in a very privileged position.

you are still earning more than 60-70% of population (at least in america) and you are in a vocation that hopefully stimulates you and gives meaning to your life (which might not necessarily true for a lot of people in the world).

ok, fine. your post-doc salary is not meeting your "standards" of living in supporting a spouse, kid, parents (yet, people with less can still get by). but really if you decide to give up your dream after 5-6 years of post-doc-ing, it's not like you're going to wind up on the streets with your education. in fact, you'll probably just sell out and go into industry where you move up to the top 5% of the earning bracket and you can live the "quality of life" you think you "deserve".

if you're truly passionate and committed to this endeavor of becoming a professor and the ongoing privilege of exploring intellectual interests, being patient and making do with your income is a small sacrifice to make in the grand scheme of things. sacrifices are an inherent part of life. you can't get everything you want, and do you really know of any professors who live balanced lives anyways? there's always a trade off somewhere. it's ridiculous to really complain about most of the things that academic scientists complain about.

ok, so you try to patient and things still don't work out. again, there's nothing that you should complain about or be upset about. it goes back to a culture and society where people believe that you if you put the effort and time into goal or dream, you deserve to get what you want. and then people are unhappy when their expectations aren't met despite the effort they put into things. sometimes things just don't work it. that's how it goes. no one deserves to get anything they way. the only thing a person might deserve is the OPPORTUNITY to strive for what they want. but it doesn't really go further than that. i think people would be more happier if they realized that.
just be patient, enjoy what you're doing now, and be grateful for the opportunity that you have no matter what happens in the end.

biochem belle said...

you are still earning more than 60-70% of population

Most postdocs are making right around the median salary for 25+ yo in the US; so making more than 50% of the population, may not seem too bad. But if you compare to the median for full-time employment, most are earning well below that median. Some are earning a salary that's just above the poverty line. Yes, you can argue about how many people have to live on that, but you don't choose to go thousands of dollars into debt to just scrape by.

it's not like you're going to wind up on the streets with your education. in fact, you'll probably just sell out and go into industry where you move up to the top 5% of the earning bracket

Really? Because if we're talking pharma, they've been making HUGE cuts, including R&D over the past year. And the cuts are continuing. The market is being flooded with experienced industry researchers. I certainly would not want to be competing with that.

Just to clarify, I do think trainees have to be realistic about their chances of rising to the top. PIs have to be realistic about that as well and stop trying to send every trainee down that path. Honestly, I do think the postdoc position is part training to become a better scientist and part figuring out what you want to do with your life. I don't think it's supposed to be easy, and yes, we have to make choices and sacrifices. But to tell every postdoc in the US to "be patient" and "grateful for the opportunity...no matter what happens in the end" is dismiss many of the inherent problems in the system.

And I very much agree with Michael's assertion.

biochem belle said...

btw regarding the number of PhDs being produced, that's one thing the economy may be starting to remedy. Yale is reducing the number of doctoral candidates it's accepting, and I wouldn't be surprised if this trend continues among other universities.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if those cuts are across the board or are targeted at reducing "under-performing" programs that are nor, or cannot bring in a lot of grant money. In any case the current economic situation may allow some colleges to trim programs in fields that produce too many PhDs. When the economy picks up these programs just as quietly never expand.

Dr. O said...

I'm not privileged, and graduate school/postdoctoral training has been hard on my pocketbook. (And I have the load of debt on my back to prove it.) But I wouldn't trade my postdoc experience for anything. Before starting this training, I had no project with which to start my own lab and would have had no idea which way to turn.

On the other hand, I agree 100% with Dr. Becca's point that there seems to be an ungodly number of postdocs compared with available tt faculty positions. Personally, I think more tt faculty positions is not the worst idea in the world - more research being done by well-qualified scientists has many upsides for our society. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible in the current economic climate. My solution (if I ran the world) would be to expand academia with an initiative lead by government (NIH/NSF) providing more funding to well-qualified scientists. In reality, this would require the backing of voters, a seemingly unlikely feat these days.

Anonymous said...

biochem belle...when you cite the "many of the inherent problems in the system," i think it is important to consider what these "problems" relate to.

if these "problems in the system" are merely things that keep people from achieving their career objectives of becoming a professor, then these problems are merely selfish ones.

however, if these problems in the system are things that limit the productivity of scientists in making contributions to research and the benefit society, then i think it is worth considering what a "professor" and "phd/post-doc" student are doing in the context of this system.

1) what does a professor really do? i would say mainly the role of a professor (outside of university duties) secures funding for his/her lab, steers the scientific direction of his/her lab, supervises and trains students in their project.

2) phd students/post-docs receive training and resources from their professor. they also help steer the scientific direction of the lab depending on their results and their willingness to engage in certain projects. but most importantly, THEY ACTUALLY DO THE SCIENCE.

so, in the context of these roles. do we really NEED more professors if the ones who actually do the work and are making the direct contribution to science/society are the phd/postdocs? i would argue that reducing the number phd/postdocs would reduce scientific output. conversely, increasing the number of professors just leaves to more middle-management-folk who would just sit on their asses. i think the more important thing to do is to achieve the proper professor/trainee ratio within a department. obviously, if there are too many trainees to professors, the professor can't supervise them properly. and with the opposite situations, you'll have a bunch of professors sitting around doing nothing unless they actually pick up a pipette and continue to do experiments themselves. ALTERNATIVELY, it is worth discuss whether the role and duties of a professor and/or post-doc should be redefined.

i believe these are the grounds in which a conversation about whether he number of faculty positions or trainee positions should be had. rather than how it affects your personal career objectives or how much money you'll get in your bank account.

biochem belle said...

Anonymous @5:07: You make some good points, but my reference to problems with the system really has nothing to do with the number of faculty positions, the ratio of profs to trainees, or how much I make.

We have mega-labs "training" 30+ people, pulling in heaps of money from funding agencies, but producing comparatively few stars. There are labs multiple people work on the same project, competing to finish it first to get the credit. Or PIs competing instead of collaborating with co-PIs on a shared project/grant. We're working within a system (from a funding and career/promotion standpoint) that often places more value on one or two high profile publications than steady publication in "lower" journals, that is looking for a sure thing over a good idea. PhDs are getting longer, postdocs are getting longer, time to tenure is getting longer. The time it takes a new TT faculty to get a solid source of funding is getting longer. Is all this really contributing to better science?

In your(?) first comment, you mention that the weeding out process is a good thing. To an extent, it is necessary. But, as Dr Becca points out, what does it really select for? One study last year indicates that the top achievers in science and engineering are leaving science altogether. It's something to ponder.

Anonymous said...

"We have mega-labs "training" 30+ people, pulling in heaps of money from funding agencies, but producing comparatively few stars. There are labs multiple people work on the same project, competing to finish it first to get the credit." ....again, i believe these issues are related to the pi / trainee ratio.

"PhDs are getting longer, postdocs are getting longer, time to tenure is getting longer. The time it takes a new TT faculty to get a solid source of funding is getting longer. Is all this really contributing to better science?"....why wouldn't it be contributing to better science?


"....PIs competing instead of collaborating with co-PIs on a shared project/grant. We're working within a system (from a funding and career/promotion standpoint) that often places more value on one or two high profile publications than steady publication in "lower" journals, that is looking for a sure thing over a good idea...." ...so why is the system the way it is? the only people we have to blame about the system is ourselves because we are the ones who have created and perpetuate it?

i believe that the reason that higher profile publications are given more value than lower generals is because people are inherently lazy,
unwilling to put in the time to really dig into an applicant's cv or funding proposal, quickly just paying attention to those who have published in the top journals. and why are they lazy when it comes to these more "bureaucratic" issues when they are clearly hardworking when it comes to their personal scientific endeavors? is it because our motives in science are not entirely altruistic or in the spirit of goodwill? that again, our motives are again in large part selfish? why else would we complain about the things we complain about? perhaps "selecting" those with a perceived high reputation will also enhance their own reputation? further own career? PIs who are unwilling to collaborate because they want the fame and recognition?

is it the system that is broken? or are we the ones who are broken? do we need to re-examine why we are doing things? why are we in science? why do we want to be a professor? why are we not satisfied with being a post-doc for 6+++ years? why do you we threatened by the increasing number of phd/post-docs in science and the increasing times to advance to the next step in a career?

it's too easy to point the finger at something or someone else? we should really look at ourselves first.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

OK, Anon 11:34, here we go.

1. This whole "is it the system or is it us" business I don't find all that interesting. Of course, scientists collectively are the system. But as trainees and young scientists, we are by definition less a part of the decisions that have made the current state of academic science what it is. The problems are ones that need to be addressed both on an individual level (like judging people based solely on Glamour Mag pubs) and at an administrative level (NIH allocation of funds).

2. It is not about feeling "threatened." It is about whether the increasing number of trainees in science is good for science as a whole, and whether the current climate, like biochem belle noted, is selecting for the best scientists.

3. If, in your questions like, "why are we not satisfied with being a post-doc for 6+++ years?" you're suggesting that we should be happy to conduct science regardless of pay, demands, sacrifices, and job security, I'm sorry, but that is horse doody. That is EXACTLY the kind of privileged attitude I'm talking about in my original post, and anyone who holds this opinion is only perpetuating the problem.

biochem belle said...

Dr Becca beat me to the punch.

Look-there are issues to be considered on all sides of the equation. Believe it or not, most postdocs do a lot of navel gazing, especially during the first couple of years. But there are some pretty far reaching problems that can only be addressed by the larger community.

Anonymous said...

again, i believe this problem is where the need for personal achievement clashes with the practice of research....

are we really we talking about these problems in the context of the greater good? i mean, this blog seems to be largely devoted to one individual's quest to advance her career.

NIH administrator (who allocate funds) have their own career interests too. Politicians (who determine how much government funding goes into science) have their own career interests too. it might be acceptable now to "blame" the "older" people higher up for creating this system, but do you really believe that once younger scientists/trainees reach a position of greater power (PI/administrator/journal editor) that the system will change? are we really any different from those ahead of us?

on a practical level, complaining about the system is not going to change anything unless you actually do something about it. while there might not be much for you "as a young trainee" to do to change this abstract/convoluted system, one thing you have the ability to do is change your mindset...a continuation of the need for the gold stars you got from your teacher....things won't fundamentally change unless each individual's attitude and personal involvement towards their work changes... you might not be able to change other people's mindset, but you can at least work on changing your own mindset.

if you believe that this is all "lovey-dovey crap", that part of human nature is motivated by self-preservation/self-interest, that this is all a process of the survival of the fittest, then system to an extent must be accepted the way it is.

lastly, and i'll probably get a lot of "you're fucking crazy" responses from this...but, by analogy.... fixing these "perceived" problems in system is like fixing racism in this country. institutional changes might or might not help (ex. affirmative action), but ultimately it comes down to personal mindset (ie. learning not to be racist).

Anonymous said...

one final comment/question while i'm thinking about it...

i think, and maybe others, would be really interested in hearing about why you personally are interested in becoming a professor (and are not necessarily satisfied with a life long career as a post-doc)....

i can personally say that I am training to become a professor because I find the scientific field i am working in to be very exciting and intellectually stimulating. while my work may benefit society or expand the knowledge of the human race, these motivations are secondary to the personal satisfaction I get while conducting research. While I can get this level of satisfaction working as post-doc, becoming a professor will give me more control over pursuing the questions I am interested in. Having trainees work under me will provide me with the labor force I need to increase my ability to pursue these questions. In addition, the increase in pay and the job security that becoming a tenure professor will provide, allows me to pay off my loans, gives me financial security, and allows me to provide for my family. The societal status of being a professor is also a nice reinforcement to my ego. These are my motivations. This my MINDSET. I don't think I'm incorrect in thinking that this a MINDSET shared by many of the young trainees currently as well as the professors currently running the lab.

Having said all that, I believe that this mindset/personal motivations has contributed to the system that exists today. Having recognized this, I believe that many of the complaints about the system and frustrations about not finding a job are related and perpetuated by a community with this common mindset. Therefore, one needs to accept the way things are as a component of this mindset or to change this mindset. i, for one, am trying really hard to change the way i perceive my needs and wants in this society.

JP said...

So I was talking to Janet Rowley the other day(yes I am name dropping haha) and she told me, "Ya' know what there are two important things in science. One, you should be willing to take any position, such as reseach scientist or lab manager or anything just so you can do science. Number two, you have to be god awful lucky." In every blog I ever read it is just people bitching. Go do science bitches.

biochem belle said...

It kinda cracks me up when people show up and pretend like they don't sit around bitchin' to whoever will listen. Because I've yet to meet a grad student or postdoc or any other human, for that matter, who doesn't bitch to somebody. There are a lot of blogs out there-and I would include this one-that spend time discussing the position and/or process and seeking to initiate discussion. And sometimes questioning the way things are is part of it.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Wowwowowowowowow. Wow.

JP, do you even see the irony in what you just wrote? That the fucking (sorry, Dr Rowley) Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago is telling you that you should be willing to take any position, just for the opportunity to do science? Are YOU willing to do that? Moreover, if you're "god awful lucky," you probably won't find yourself in the position of having to answer that question.

I don't really see how anyone can disagree that the futures of most (most, not all) young scientists are uncertain at this point, and as biochem belle pointed out, I'm interested in discussing why this is, and how we might be able to move our career paths towards more certainty--not just whining. If you think that academic science is perfect the way it is, you've either been here too long, or not long enough.

Becca said...

Somehow, I've got a hunch that Dr Rowley, as a scientist at an institution that puts potential grad students up in the Omni (and lets you know that's where Oprah puts her guests!), might, just *might* be running into some people with more entitlement issues than your average bear. Just a possiblity. In which case, she might not mean it literally (e.g. she could be referring only to *permanent* positions; I think I'd be willing to take about anything that let me do some independent science and provided enough financial support that I wouldn't spend more time worrying about childcare costs or doctor bills than science, even if I'd never get to the 'top of the totem').

Also, as a grad student there's no way in heck I'm being paid the median income. Mind, I was quite comfortable pre-kid, but now things are hellish.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Becca, absolutely. And sure--double my salary and give me the freedom and means to do whatever research I want, and you can call me whatever you please.

kim said...

how about money grubbing whore?

anon, but not 'Anonymous' said...

We live in a capitalist economy; in this light, the predicament is quite straight-forward: There is an over-supply of science PHDs compared to the demand (# of TT positions) for academic researchers.

This imbalance in the supply and demand means that there is significant competition amongst PHDs who wish to obtain an academic research TT position.

Given our capitalist economy, each individual is given the freedom to choose what education/career to pursue, but no guarantee that there will be a demand (job/position/TT academic faculty slot) for the skills and knowledge obtained through education and training. Each individual is responsible for his/her decision about what education/career to pursue. With the right to choose comes the responsibility for that choice.

It is not personal, it is a matter of fact that you are not entitled to a TT position, you have to compete for one in this capitalist economy.

Anonymous said...

I think that people, inherently, derive great pleasure from discovery and in this regard doing a second post doc can be justified. However, people also, inherently, derive great pleasure from taking heroin. The latter activity clearly has a detrimental effect on one’s finances, physical and mental health; the former is more insidious. What becomes of the 49 yo post-doc? A question of utmost pertinence!

Speaking as someone who has been through the UK academic system (the problems are the same!) the situation of a post-doc researcher is no way for any professional person to live. Its’s simply insane that someone with two university degrees (and the debt to go along with them) and 3 years professional work experience is expected to accept the working conditions of a low grade factory worker (no disrespect intended). I think science attracts nice people, who are unfortunately, on many occasions taken advantage of, by the system and nasty narcissistic professors who promise fairy tales.

In the UK, academia like politics is incredibly corrupt, and many professorships are given to friends of factually and faculty WAGS (wives and girlfriends). To get a position as an outsider you need to be a disabled lesbian, all politics of course (again no disrespect).
Moreover, it’s hard enough trying to hold a family together in contemporary western society with acceptable working conditions, but with the incredibly shit wages, lack of job security (and control) in research; one should be prepared for a lonely life.

In short, unless you are financially secure, one post doc is more than enough; one simply cannot give up their life for a pipe dream! In today’s world age is everything; don’t sell your best years to some idiot professor who lives in lala land! Get out into the real world before you are too old!!!! Don’t waste your hard earned education on humbug!! Earn a living, get married, have kids, go to nice places twice a year on vacation!!!!


As my old professor of physical chemistry said on his retirement seminar “don’t do it, go into plumbing, it pays better” I thought he was joking at the time.
Cheers,
Ewan.

Anonymous said...

I totally dig what Ewan just said. I too went through UK system but early into my postdoc being on a fixed term contract really started stressing me out. I saw other postdocs with many more years experience were not getting their contracts renewed, and after short spells on the dole or temping, most have ended up retraining as a teacher. Something I can't see myself doing.

The problem is too many postdocs and not enough lectureships. And most of the lectureships that are available seem to be given to foreigners. Now don't get me wrong, I am not racist in anyway whatsoever, but I find it hard to accept that you can be born in this country, and highly educated in this country at a massive cost to the tax payer, just to be thrown on the scrap heap because an outsider has been offered one of the few jobs available. To me this doesn't make any sense.

I cut short my postdoc and was lucky enough to get a job in IT. But its not a "professional" position - ie no career structure or any means of progression or earning a decent wage. Pretty much bottom of the ladder bossed about by just about everybody.

In addition, my friends who trained in accountancy, law, medicine and other professional fields are just getting to the age where they are moving upwards...rapidly. This hurts the most as compared to them I have an exceedingly modest standard of living, yet I was the one who got the highest grades at school, went to the best uni, spent many a night working whilst they were out partying.

And no-one can really tell me how I can catch up with my crowd. I'm over 30 now, too old for graduate positions, and not the energy nor the financial means to fund myself through a vocational degree (I already have BSci, MSci and PhD in physics).

It feels like I have spent the first 25 years of my life getting educated to the highest standard, and the remaining years applying for jobs (well over 200 now). But unless a job is advertised as "no experience necessary" you can bet your bottom dollar I don't have the essential skills they are looking for. I don't even have a desire to become insanely rich - just comfortable will suit me fine. Its the lack of status and influence I have on life which gets me down the most.

My advice to anyone reading this and thinking of doing a PhD or postdoc is DON'T!!! You have been warned. And if you are wondering what degree to study at university then for heaven's sake make sure it is NOT physics - in fact don't do any of the sciences. If science is your thing then you might want to consider medicine or dentistry instead. Even engineering will stand you in better shape when it comes to applying for jobs.

And what about my old friends who didn't even do A levels, but started work after GCSE's. They even earn more than me. And they don't have any student debt. I will be fifty by the time I pay my debt off at the rate its going. Don't even get me started on this topic. I could rant away forever.

If you've got this far then congratulations. And thank you for letting me sound off.

Jon

Jean said...

Here's my great solution that I thought up recently. As a graduate student looking for what to do post-graduation, I'd really love to get a senior scientist type job where I can continue to do great science and mentor people in the lab, but forgo the responsibility of overseeing the lab (not to mention the crazy competition and moving all over god's-green-earth to get a PI job).
So my solution is to stop putting money into so many graduate students, but into more senior-scientist type positions. This would create more competition at a lower level (getting into grad school), open up more possible positions for those that DO graduate (at the senior scientist level) and possibly mean more productivity (SS are happy and knowledgeable and able to work at what they are good at, and be more productive than starting grad students).
There's probably some holes, but this sounded good to me the other day when I thought of it.

squishy tomato said...

Wow...the post of the first "Anonymous" person is incredibly naive, and it's a pity he/she didn't learn how to write proper sentences whilst studying at a "top institution". Give it a few years of being forced to move country every 2 years in order to stay in academia, working weekends and skipping holidays to write your funding proposals and job applications on top of doing your normal research work, having funding applications rejected for the tiniest of reasons, seeing other people get positions through politics rather than scientific ability...and then waking up one day realising you've sacrificed every aspect of your life for your job (no friends or family because you moved abroad, difficulty integrating when you are abroad because they speak a foreign language and you can't get fluent on a 2 year contract, no time to find a boyfriend/girlfriend, no money to afford children, struggling financially every single month because, even if the salary is ok, the cost of moving countries and buying new furniture cripples you every time...)..then maybe at that point you might start to notice that it isn't as simple as "If you're the brightest and you work the hardest, your efforts will pay off". Do I like my job as a postdoc? Yes. Do I think it's worth having zero life outside work and scraping by in eternal poverty? No. Will I keep living like this indefinitely to stay in academia? No. And if you think this is because I "don't deserve" a permanent position, that is simply not true (your comment about "only 10% of the postdocs" in your lab deserving a lectureship is, I suspect, highly inaccurate, and suggests that you don't know what qualities to look for).... By the way, I have worked now at both "top" institutions and less prestigious ones, and some of the stupidest scientists I ever met are in the "top" institutions, while there are geniuses in less-famous places, so don't think that just because you have a place in a top institution that defines you to be a better scientist.

hope said...

I totally agree with squishy tomato...

hope said...

I do agree also with Thise

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