Sometimes I forget

Feb 28 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

There are times when writing a blog of this size seems like an open conversation between myself and the couple of dozen people who comment. I have no problem with that, but sometimes I forget that it's possible to toss out a post that you think is relatively innocuous and prompt a response you weren't expecting. Certainly that was the case when I touched off a lively debate about the merits of postdocing not too long ago, by suggesting ways I had seen people have very productive and fun postdocs. Clearly part of the response was my fault because, as Dr. Becca correctly pointed out, one could read the post as "if you don't do what I say and you're in a shitty postdoc, it's your fault". That is really the last thing I meant to put out there, but when you write a post in 5 minutes between other obligations, sometimes it's not well thought out and comes across to others in a way you never meant. Sometimes I forget that mentioning the words "postdoc" and "fun" in the same sentence in the science blog community can be like wearig meat pants at the pound.


PLS prepares to post on the subject of a happy postdoc experience

There are many postdocs out there who are in exploitive situations, where they are being milked like data cows by supervisors who care little for what happens to their carcass after they are done as a "trainee". To me, that type of "supervising" is unconscionable, but it doesn't mean it's not rampant. But, the point of my original post was to provide points to consider when choosing a postdoc that might aid in ending up in, at the very least, a tolerable position during what I view as an important career stage. Sometimes I forget "drive-by commenters" are almost always the ones who post the most emotional response about a topic because they pluck a single post out of the whole, cherry pick a few phrases they disagree with and launch into tirade.


Artist's rendition of a drive-by commenter.

Hey, that's fine. It reminds me to read through what I'm writing a little more critically rather than just hitting the post button after I finish typing. The flip side of course, is that simply calling someone else's points "propaganda for the system" based on your own reality is not exactly productive. To claim that another person is trying to falsely generalize based on their experience and then project your own experience to a group of people is a pretty basic flaw in logic.


Whatever you do, don't look it in the eye!

What I think is important here, however, is to bear in mind the fact that many of us want the same thing - to find ways to improve the postdoc experience. PiT already beat me to the punch with a good post on ways in which individuals can help make changes for themselves or other postdocs, so I won't belabor those points. Suffice to say that complaining without doing anything will be dismissed by others as empty blathering. If you're passionate about making a change to the life of postdocs, then do more than writing myopic internet content. To look at the real stats behind postdoc salaries, for instance, and claim that this is not your problem is to blame shift in a very convenient way. I'm not saying that postdocs have control over their salary (unless they chose a position based only on that), but in many cases PIs also have very little control. Not every lab is a biomedical factory running on multiple NIH grants.

If that doesn't appeal to you then at the very least, as a PI, break the cycle. Those who vociferously complain about how horrible being a postdoc is, only to turn around and treat their trainees the same way, either have learned nothing or have consciously embraced the exact thing which they fought against. Many of the PIs who blog are very aware of the training responsibility we have to the next generation of postodcs, whether you decide to call that "nauseating altruism" or not. Every trainee has their own goals and one of the PI's responsibilities is to do what they can to place that trainee in the best position to succeed. In the real world even a good PI will not be able to do this 100% of the time and even successful trainees will no reach their goals 100% of the time. Does that mean that all PI's are just out for themselves and to find more trainee wood to throw on the fire of science? If you think that is the case, why are you aiming to be a PI? If you are an unhappy postdoc, will you treat the people in your lab better or will you see it as a rite of passage that they suffer? The fact of the matter is that improving the postdoc experience takes commitment IRL, not just virtual opinions.

[Update Biochem Belle just added a post about types of postdocs that readers may find useful.]

29 responses so far

  • Professor in Training says:

    Ditto everything.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    Awesome post. My PI, who once ran a lab with more six postdocs, a handful of grad students, and many technicians is now shifting gears and trying to run a smaller lab to focus on more personal attention. He hated running larger style labs because he spent more time writing grants and less time knowing what the hell was going on in the lab. He also missed the opportunity to mentor his trainees and told us he felt guilty because he had great mentorship as a postdoc and felt like a hypocrite because he wasn't providing that same level to his postdocs.Not to stray off topic but the picture of the guy with the box on his head is nothing less than fucking awesome.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Really great post, PLS. Nicely done!

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    I *heart* you, PLS!

  • Ms.PhD says:

    Yeah, I learned the hard way that each post kind of has to stand on its own, or you have to be prepared to take the shit when it comes. Also, it's hard being a pseudo-person with a fake name. Nobody knows what your experience was like, and sometimes you can't really tell them. So then nobody really knows where you're coming from or what your intentions were.It has been interesting for me to work on learning to see how others might interpret what I'm writing vs. what I meant or what I was thinking at the time, but maybe didn't actually say. It's still often very difficult to see all sides of an argument. I really hate that I can't always argue from the most effective standpoint of being able to share my personal experiences, because I don't want to risk outing myself. Anyway it's always a learning experience, both the reading and the arguing, for those who want to learn. The part that still annoys me is the preponderance of deniers, and PiT has been one of these at times - who blame the victim and act like it can't happen. But they're learning, and PiT included. Because it will eventually happen to all of you, if you stick around in science long enough, and then you'll see I wasn't exaggerating or making it up.

  • Professor in Training says:

    The part that still annoys me is the preponderance of deniers, and PiT has been one of these at times - who blame the victim and act like it can't happen.But they're learning, and PiT included. Ummm ... what? I never denied that some postdocs are in horrendous situations. And I don't remember blaming the victim (presumably you mean yourself). I do, however, feel strongly that you/we all went into science of our own free will and that sticking your head in the sand and blaming The System won't help a sucky situation get any better. What you constantly fail to recognize is that there ARE good situations out there and that there ARE good mentors. Using your own your bad experiences to generalize and say that science sucks is doing our field a great disservice. I'm tired of tiptoeing around your attitude, MsPhD. What are YOU going to do to make things better both for science and for yourself?

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Isis, was it the shameless appropriation of your blogging style or the meat pants? I'm going with the meat pants. MsPhD, I think that you sometimes confuse "It's not that way everywhere" with "It's not that way anywhere". The message that both PiT and I have been trying to get across is that the postdoc experience is extremely variable, from horribly exploitive to highly collaborative and productive. To say that only one extreme of that spectrum exists is burying one's head in the sand. What is important is to find ways to improve postdoc life for those who need the change most, which is where action is needed more that just water cooler complaining. I have no doubt that your experience has been hard, but I don't think the conditions you've worked under are universal. Nevertheless, what are steps that can be taken to reduce the number of postdocs who get taken advantage of?

  • Anonymous says:

    Call me cynical, but when I hear some PI trying to find ways to help postodcs feel more "respected" and "valauble", I can't help thinking of the snake oil salesman type dean who welcomed us to grad school many years ago. Among the "nice" things he told us, one of gems he passed on was "Your teaching is the most important, even more than your thesis, because your teaching will typically have an impact on OTHERS"! I was a kid who went headlong into science with my eyes closed, but I am not a kid any more. I know self interest when I see it. And I do not for a moment believe that anyone is on my side, interested in mentoring and nurturing me. I have been trained too well for that. The best I can think about "generous" PIs like PiT and PlS is that they are either suffering from some version of survivor guilt or just trying to feel like they are big moral giants. Now, I am not saying that you folks are wicked and immoral, I am just saying that your survivor guilt is silly. You folks obviously deserve your success and I hope you enjoy it in every way.But please...no condescension! The reason I am a postdoc is not because the scientific establishment thinks I need more mentoring and nurturing. It is because science jobs are hard to come by and hence the establishment needs to eliminate the weaker ones by working them to death. Give me the truth. I am smart and strong enough to handle it.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Hmmmm, I think we've heard from this Anon before and all I can say is that I hope you consider what you've been though when it comes to having your own lab. Your view of "how science works" makes me worry for your future trainees, should you have any.

  • Hope says:

    I can certainly sympathize with Anon above. And yet, when I read posts like PLS’s, my first impulse is to think: Yes, that’s the kind of nurturing PI that I’d be. And I’m not an idiot; I’m for real – so maybe he is, too? But I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve given someone the benefit of the doubt like that, only later to learn that they are, in fact, full of it.So I’m starting to think that if there are a few PI’s out there that think and, more importantly, act according to what PLS says, they are few and far between. So, postdocs, watch your back – and remember that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

  • Professor in Training says:

    Ok, let me see if I've got this straight ...1. All postdocs are exploited.2. All PIs are manipulative asshats.3. New PIs who insist that postdoc training can be beneficial and enjoyable are naive, forgetful and condescending.Sigh. Whatever.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    PiT, we've been exposed. Our overly elaborate plan to lure in unsuspecting postdocs to our evil lair of science is all crashing down around us! They've seen through it. I guess I'll just have to go back to unreasonably demanding data, threatening to fire people and never being satisfied with the hours people put in. See you at the Naive, Forgetful and Condescending New PI Conference in August. I'm excited, I've never been to Bali.

  • Professor in Training says:

    Sounds like a great plan. I'll be the one at the bar yelling at my postdocs on the phone.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sir/Madam,I am sad to note that tenure track professors like you have minds so unreceptive to subtlety. I never said that you were being deceitful and wicked...in fact... I made it a point to write that explicitly:"Now, I am not saying that you folks are wicked and immoral, I am just saying that your survivor guilt is silly."I am not an expert in psychology, but I thought you'd be able to handle the truth. The truth is that postdocs exist because there are not enough jobs for them. How can you NOT get this?And so what do you do when you dont have enough jobs for everyone that wants one? You raise the bar higher. The thing with science is that people feel so personally invested in it that they keep trying against all odds to achieve that rare fruit. And the system adapts itself to take maximum advantage of those who foolishly chase a dream. I am sorry to prick your ego, but I don't think a couple of new PIs run the system. No, I do not think you have a big elaborate plan because I don't think you are smart enough nor powerful enough to do that. You are part of the system, just like I am. You are every bit as underpaid, under-recognized and under-appreciated as I am, adjusting for your education and experience. Your goals are to achieve the most you can, just like my goals. And I refuse to believe that you are staying up nights trying to help me achieve my goals. And why should you? All you are probably doing is trying to feel good and moral and generous about yourself. And that's fine too. Let me repeat... SELF INTEREST IS NOT EVIL. But just don't expect smart people to fall for it.

  • tideliar says:

    Postdoc Association: If you don't have one, form one. Support from your fellows can go a long way both fixing institutional faults and providing moral support.Postdoc Office: If you don't have one, form one. Having strong faculty advocates for postdoc training can help a lot, and might provide an ombudsman if you need one.Work with your national organization: the NPA in the US (www.nationalpostdoc.org), the NRSA in the UK (http://vitae.ac.uk/), CAPS in Canada (http://sites.google.com/site/canadapostdoc/) etc. Admittedly no one organization is perfect, but change needs to happen from within and without and these organizations can give you a voice at the national level.Use the FASEB IDP (as pointed out by Biochem Belle at Prof in training). Don't fucking bitch about "I'm not a grad student anymore" blah blah blah. The postdoc experience is now so poorly managed and unfocused that most postdocs couldn't find the Tenure Track with both hands and a flash light even if they want to. Most importantly, is instead of impotent whining about how unfair the system is, DO SOMETHING about it, locally, nationally, personally or professionally. Empower yourself.Xpost to PiT.

  • tideliar says:

    Anon @ 10:16, you're trolling right? You have to be. You can't be that blind to your own interest to miss the point so vacuously.

  • Anonymous says:

    Postdoc office. I have two of these. One has my name on the door. The other is the pub.-antipodean

  • Anonymous says:

    @tideliar...Trolling? hmmm.... I am sorry, but I don't think PIs have magical powers to change the lives of postdocs (in general, that is) by being a little more polite or generous or considerate. You can't do squat about the job market and that is all the postdoc hell is about. I don't want to reinforce your "god complex" by complaining to you ... as though you folks have the power to heal my life. You are a powerless pawn just like me. We just happen to be on different squares on the chessboard. So... some of you here ... PlS.. PiT and Tideliar(?) think that if only you could take some small half hearted measures, the life of postdocs would change. Ooh...because you have all the big power, don't you? A couple of PIs could just get together and wave their magic wands ...and the seas would part. I am sorry...Queen Canute. It doesn't work that way. Quit worrying about the postdocs and enjoy your time as scientists. You obviously deserve it. I don't understand why you think a postdoc should fall into 1 of 2 categories:1) Grumbling and hateful and cursing the PIs for making his/her life difficult... 2) Drinking the kool aid and grateful for any small mercy the PI might want to bestow on them....Why can't a postdoc have self respect, a backbone and no desire to scramble for small change? I bristled that someone would think I was out for small change. I said I couldn't care for small change and I felt insulted you think postdocs wanted small change. Is that so bad?I was very open and clear in acknowledging your abilities that raised you above most people in your cohort. What's the problem there? Should I have been jealous and bitter? Why do you have this need that everyone else should be jealous of you?And I said that I don't think a bunch of junior PIs can do much about the system. It's the truth, is it not? I don't think you are all powerful. Again, is that so ridiculous?

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I'll say it again:Does that mean that all PI's are just out for themselves and to find more trainee wood to throw on the fire of science? If you think that is the case, why are you aiming to be a PI? If you are an unhappy postdoc, will you treat the people in your lab better or will you see it as a rite of passage that they suffer? The fact of the matter is that improving the postdoc experience takes commitment IRL, not just virtual opinions.No one or dozen PIs will change the science culture, but the more that take the mentoring responsibility seriously, the fewer exploited postdocs. Also, the more who voice the need for postdoc mentoring at levels above them, the more the message will be heard. That's what commitment is all about.

  • tideliar says:

    "Why do you have this need that everyone else should be jealous of you?"Because it makes up for my overwhelming sense of penis envy.But in all seriousness, you do have a point. Small changes can be pretty meaningless when the larger issues can't be addressed. And there is nothing any of us can do about the job market (for example).

  • Hope says:

    Also, the more who voice the need for postdoc mentoring at levels above them, the more the message will be heard.Sadly, I’m not convinced that this is always part of the solution. Talk is cheap, as they say, and sometimes people just talk the talk as a way of evading having to walk the walk. Do you really think that PI’s don’t know that they should be mentoring their postdocs as opposed to exploiting them? Until there are important, real negative consequences for the latter, all the talk in the world won’t change that behavior. Under current circumstances, postdocs are fungible (as are grad students, to some extent). If you don’t succeed with a particular PI, somebody else will come along that manages to pull it off somehow, and your failure will never be seen as the PI’s fault/problem. It’s the postdoc or grad student that will be seen as the problem – as the one who just didn’t have what it takes to succeed. I don’t know what the answer is, but talk is not always a step in the right direction.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    "Hey, that's fine. It reminds me to read through what I'm writing a little more critically rather than just hitting the post button after I finish typing."That's true for us commentators but it is after all just a comment, not a blogpost - so sometimes "cherry picking" is on order. BTW, I did read the discussions (not just a single blogpost) and felt quite alienated by the language used primarily by faculty. This is why I think that all of us need to think about our language. What you write may be perceived differently than your intention. And it is often difficult to get that intention across. Thus, a little mindfulness and understanding couldn't hurt."What is important is to find ways to improve postdoc life for those who need the change most, which is where action is needed more that just water cooler complaining."This is true, but the complaint becomes an opportunity to examine the system, even when it seems relentless.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I don't know whether to laugh or cry that these comments are back-to-back. Hope, this entire post was about doing something and not just complaining. I agree that talk is cheap, but how do we convince, say, a provost to put resources towards postdocs if they don't hear that message from numerous faculty. My provost doesn't like interpretive dance, I've tried. What about funding agencies? Girlpostdoc, I look forward to your analysis of the system and what we can actually do to make a difference. It's all well and good to create a straw man, but I prefer to focus my energy on the actual issue... or should we go through the whole "civility on the internet" discussion again? I hear Nature Networks is looking for more bloggers.

  • tideliar says:

    "I hear Nature Networks is looking for more bloggers." LMFAO and now is the time to attack. Half the bloggers can't log in since they switched to MT4.Go on, tell us more, dear bloggers, about how our use of words in type is different in your perception to our use of words vocally. And while you're building that straw man you can avoid the elephant in the room

  • Anonymous says:

    Let me caveat this comment with:1. I believe that there are exploited students/postdocs out there.2. I also believe that not all students/postdocs are exploited. 3. I was bitter and burned out towards the end of my PhD (like many people).4. I enjoyed my postdoc (in a new research direction).5. I do realize there are many more people who want TT positions than available jobs.6. I also realize there are more people who want research jobs than jobs available.I just don't understand the overwhelming sense of betrayal. Getting a PhD/doing a postdoc is not a golden ticket to a job. Getting a highly desired job is a combo of skill and luck--skill in preparing to meet the qualifications, and luck in being one of the people in the right place at the right time to get a highly desired job. This is the same in all highly desirable jobs across all fields.That said, unemployment among science PhDs is SIGNIFICANTLY lower than the general population. Even if postdocs originated and propagated due to the large number of science PhDs without TT jobs, every year there are more PhDs, but unemployment stays low. The total number of postdocs is not growing as fast as the total number of science PhDs. These people must be finding jobs somewhere.Maybe I am an outlier--most of the people in my (pretty highly ranked) program in my field did not want TT jobs. Many (but not all) of those that wanted them did get them eventually (albeit not necessarily at research universities). Many people went on to postdocs, then on to other things (patent law, industry, policy, etc) by choice. I know at least 3 people with PhDs in my field who are teaching high school as they intended all along--they just wanted to explore their interest in our field before starting their careers. Since science PhDs are generally paid, this is feasible. Everyone wants to extrapolate their experience onto others. I was not ready to start a TT position after I finished my PhD. I learned a lot about how to do science in my postdoc, because I had the benchwork part down (from my PhD time) I could focus on learning the other parts. YMMV.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    "It's all well and good to create a straw man, but I prefer to focus my energy on the actual issue... or should we go through the whole "civility on the internet" discussion again? I hear Nature Networks is looking for more bloggers.""Go on, tell us more, dear bloggers, about how our use of words in type is different in your perception to our use of words vocally. And while you're building that straw man you can avoid the elephant in the room."Civility or mindfulness in the way we write or speak is not a strawman. If we want a discussion to be inclusive, this means that we can't use language that alienates people who might otherwise have something practical and useful to say. If that means that we should we go through the whole "civility on the internet" discussion again, then the answer is yes. Although I realize many of us our pressed for time, it wouldn't kill us to think about our words before pressing "post."I have been thinking PLS about a blogpost that tries to figure out practical ways to improve the situation for postdocs. Largely because HippieHusband and I have been discussing his difficult circumstances.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Looking forward to discussing your actionable ideas.

  • app says:

    Surely any serious discussion about the postdoc situation has to address this basic fact: the number of openings for faculty positions is way fewer than the number of postdocs striving to get one.Given this reality, what can we expect the average postdoc experience to be like? Can we expect PIs to really dedicate themselves to training and promoting postdocs for PIdom when the odds of the postdoc actually becoming a PI are generally so small? Because of the oversupply, isn't it inevitable that postdocs are generally going to be regarded as disposable and easily replacable? What kind of working experience and treatment can workers from such a group expect on average? Probably it is going to be less than idyllic, right? Now the delicate question is: should aspiring academic scientists be told about this in advance? Or should we just highlight potential positive aspects that the postdoc experience *could* have, and has had for some, without any mention of the basic reality mentioned above and its likely consequence for the *average* postdoc experience?This leads on to other delicate questions. E.g. should we tell aspiring scientists in advance about the real selection criteria for getting jobs in this business? Or should we either implicitly or explicitly say that it is based on objective measures of talent and accomplishment, and then let them find out the reality for themselves later on? While I'm at it, one more question: When talking to the youth, should we contrast the average career outcome for an aspiring academic scientist of typical (high!) ability for a member of that group with average outcomes a person of the same high ability level could achieve in other careers?E.g. should we make a contrast like this:(A) PhD ($20k, 5 years) -> postdoc ($40k, 6 years) -> leave academia and do something else, maybe teach at a community college ($50-60k ?)(B) BSc in, say, computer science from good uni -> Microsoft ($70k, 5 years) -> Intel ($100k, 5 years) -> Apple ($150k, ...) Or is it best to avoid that kind of contrast and just point out to the youth that postdoc salary is same as US median salary and science PhDs who leave academia still have very low unemployment?

  • [...] I leave it to Prof-like Substance to pull on the meatpants and dispel some of the myths held by [...]

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