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?