Repost: 'Postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions'

A comment on a recent post of mine asked if I thought technicians should be paid more than postdocs. The direct answer is "no", the more-involved issue revolves around my belief that "internships" and "training periods" are used in essence by those with power to steal labor from those without. Nevertheless this reminded me of a prior post that I put up on the old blog on August 30, 2007; it quickly turned into one of my most-viewed posts on WP. Note I don't say "most appreciated"! Enjoy.


In a recent post, YoungFemaleScientist opines:

as a postdoc, you're essentially a PI with most of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. You're frequently on your own, but they get to claim they're training you. You're basically doing everything yourself, but they get to be senior author on your paper and put your work in their grants. Etc. etc.

See Thus Spake Zuska discussing an offhand PI quote in a LA Times 4-parter on a neuroscience lab in which it was suggested that grad students are "cannon fodder". These comments are also supported by a recent Nature piece on trainees as indentured servants of their PIs. These types of comments (and indeed much more of the attitude to be found on YoungFemaleScientist blog) reflect the disgruntled post-doc and disgruntled grad student mindset on "exploitation". This is a common theme, inevitably cited as a reason for all that is wrong with this "business". There is some truth to the complaint, of course. But the PI is not always the bad guy and sometimes "exploitation" is actually the voice of experience trying to help the trainee's career. We'll start with the hit-em-hard:


PhysioProf responds to the YoungFemaleScientist perspective via comment on one of my posts:

"Post-docs *always* overestimate their intellectual contributions to the work they do relative to the PI. And they *always* underestimate the importance of what the PI contributes, intellectually and otherwise....I did this when I was a post-doc, and I'm sure you did, too. ... Only once I became a PI did I become aware of this delusion."

To which all I can say is, preach on Brother/Sister PP, preach on. I keep meaning to write about my grant writing "training" and this is a good excuse. In short, I "helped" my PI write two grants at the end of my second postdoc, about 5 years past defending. One project was about as straight down my alley as it could possibly be, very much a collaborative area and I thought I did a LOT of work on that grant. There were a lot of what I considered "my ideas" in that proposal. When I saw the submitted version after the PI had finished with it, I thought "Oh, gee, that's what a grant is" and "Well that's why s/he's the PI". Did I feel exploited? No, I did not. First, I was coming around to understand that I would be trying for a career in grant-funded science, that nothing was going to be handed to me and that I had better learn to write grants. This seemed a good opportunity for learning. Second, I was still planning to stay with the group for some indeterminate future. The relationship with the PI was good, I had a lot of intellectual freedom and responsibility and in my mind's eye, I suppose I saw myself as doing the work if we should get funded. Third, I was coming to understand at a very minor level that this was part of the job. Whether I stayed or not, the lab needed to seek additional funding and it was part of my job as postdoc to contribute to that process.
Let me underline this point from my current perspective as PI. Disgruntled post-doc let us be clear that even though part of your job is "training", part of your job is also...a job. That's right, you owe professional performance to your laboratory. No, it doesn't make a whit of difference that you funded your own fellowship. If you are using laboratory resources to your advantage (and if you are not you are already a PI) you owe a deal of work to someone else. That someone else is generally the PI of your group. And yes (gasp) some of what your "work" consists of is going to be intellectual property.
Back to history, a mere 6 mo after helping to write two grants, I found myself thrust into grant writing with some urgency. In submitting my own applications I discovered how little I had really contributed previously to the process of putting out a functional grant application. In spades. This gets back to PhysioProf's point. It is inevitable that until we have walked the proverbial mile, we have little understanding of what others are doing. The NIH grant application is a complicated document, requires many additional local institutional processes and documents, communicates much with relatively little space for writing and is far from a simple recitation of "what we'd kinda like to do to address these sorta hypotheses for the next 5 years". Writing a bunch of Background text, some draft Aims and an experiment or 6 is not the same as putting together a submittable application. I only really came to appreciate this when I was the one solely responsible for the outcome.
Another current perspective is that it is amazing how ignorant post-docs are of even the paper writing / submitting / revising process. Maybe I've just been around a lot of loser post-docs. But this experience is not just from my lab(s) and seems to cross disciplines. First and foremost, graduate students and postdocs spend incalculable amounts of time reading papers. Right? So why is it so difficult to understand what makes an actual "paper"? You need to know something about length, format and expected content of the average paper in the journal(s) you target. Not every piece of data you collect is actually interesting, no I don't care how hard you worked at it! The "introduction" and "discussion" parts are not a dissertation. The paper needs to tell a "story" even if it is not chronologically accurate. When it is back from review with favorable comments, now is NOT the time to throw in a bunch of stuff the reviewers didn't even mention! And here's a hint, when that "almost finished draft" you give to the PI disappears onto his desk for months it isn't because s/he's lazy or is dissing "your project". It might be because the PI finds your effort so dismal and envisions so much of his/her work required that it is frankly depressing and s/he moves on to something more rewarding in the unending stack of PI duties...
Now, dear post-doc here's the thing. You are in training and the PI is committed to training you. No big deal if you don't know everything, if you need help to see what makes a paper or a research analysis or a publishable figure. The trick is, to understand that this is what is going on. The PI is not making you create new figures on a whim as make-work. S/he is not trash-canning your extra 4 pages of discourse to depress you. Saying "that doesn't need to go in there" is not a disrespect for your labors. Editing your writing is not "just substituting the PIs style for mine". These are the years of expertise in the field talking to explain to you how to avoid common peer reviewer complaints and summary rejections of your meritorious work. Try to understand that in many cases the criticism is warranted. Also, try to understand that the goal is sometimes to get the paper accepted for publication in a given journal. Also try to understand that the PI expects you to learn from this process! The next time try to do it their way.
T. Ryan Gregory at Genomicron has a great essay on why your PI is urging you to publish your results. It addresses several common complaints about post-doc / PI relations. The absolute icing on the cake is the final point:

8: If data are not published, they might as well not exist as far as the pool of human knowledge is concerned.
Data that would otherwise be considered interesting, novel, and important mean nothing if no one knows about them. And if they are never published, then effectively they might as well not exist.

Or as I would put it, "I don't care how much 'work' you put in, if it isn't published then it didn't happen. If you don't publish you are not doing science." This comes up all over the place and is specifically relevant to academic credit for ideas, meaning authorship position and future "ownership" for particular findings.
In additional related reading...
Larry Moran of Sandwalk blogs on the purpose of graduate education, in response to another Nature piece on the "overproduction" of PhDs. To me his defense sounds like the kind of thing I talk about (no blogo yet though) with respect to bachelor's level college education. Namely that it is most emphatically not direct vocational training, that the learning-to-learn is key, pursuing your own intellectual interests develops a contributing citizen, etc. In short I'm a believer in the Liberal Arts college tradition. I don't know that I agree that this applies to graduate education in which the vocational expectations are more explicit . Not that the only path is to become a NIH-supported research professor but rather that for most people the goal should be to be training for a career directly related to the subject of study and research.
UPDATE: YFS's readers are going nuts and "Am I a woman scientist" points out that some with opinions may be wary of non-anon commenting. So I'll turn off the ID requirements for awhile, comment away.
UPDATE II 09/16/07: A bit more on this from A Scientist's Life here and here.


I think I'll avoid an attempt to spin or contextualize comments and/or rants based on knowledge of what people thought last time and just let it run. If you want to see the prior discussion the comments are here.

58 responses so far

  • CC says:

    A comment on a recent post of mine asked if I thought technicians should be paid more than postdocs. The direct answer is "no"...
    At the risk of starting PhysioProf raving about caviar and private jets again -- why on earth not?
    Postdocs have the option to switch tracks and instantly increase their income, reduce their work hours and stress, and regain the benefits helpfully stripped from them when they won a fellowship. If they're not doing so, presumably it's because those differences are offset by the benefits of postdoc status. (See my explanation thereof on the previous story.) That's how the labor market works.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Without getting too far off the reservation into how labor markets really work, CC, simply consider the time I've alluded to when NRSA stipends for postdocs took something like a $10K+ jump (for first year) by NIH fiat all at an instant. It was a recognition by the NIH that your equation sucked for academic science. Since I'm in academic science, not industry, it follows that I'd prefer we not suffer any "brain drain" just because the careers suck so bad. This is actually pretty consistent with a frequent tone that I strike in terms of wanting science careers to suck a little less for the currently transitioning generation.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    and just because...i thought I'd look up the numbers my memory being what it isn't and all... all are starting postdocs with 0 yrs prior postdoc experience.
    FY97, $20, 292
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not96-266.html
    FY98, $21,000
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not98-001.html
    FY99 $26,296
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not98-161.html
    fy00, $26,916
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-00-008.html
    FY01, $28,260
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/Notice-files/NOT-OD-01-011.html
    FY02, $31,092
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not-od-02-028.html
    FY03, $34,200
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-03-036.html
    so my memory is faulty. it was the 98-99 jump of $5K that was such a dramatic shift in perceived compensation. It is likely that since I was a few years in at that point my salary might have taken a slightly larger boost leading to my recollection.

  • G says:

    I don't know where these postdocs mentioned are coming from, but as a graduate student, I certainly knew about the time frame and process for writing and submitting a paper. Additionally, we made fun of the students whose advisors were sitting on their papers because the drafts were so bad. We knew who couldn't write a paper and we knew why the "evil boss" was sitting on it. As a postdoc now, I am fully aware that while I am contributing intellectually far more than the average grad student, my PI gets the intellectual 1st place ribbon.
    And yes, everyone I know (myself included) complains about the PI. In every field of work, the boss is complained about, why should academics be any different?

  • ..when that "almost finished draft" you give to the PI disappears onto his desk for months it isn't because s/he's lazy or is dissing "your project".
    As a postdoc, I'm fighting back on this one. I understand what you mean when you say PIs are overworked and that a piss-poor draft is depressingly difficult to approach.
    But guess what? It's probably not piss-poor because I *thought* I would just give you a piece of crap; it's bad because I need help redoing it. Because this is the best that I've got, in part because I've been buried so deep in these data for years that I can no longer step back and figure out what points to punch. That's your job. And if you're so overworked that you can't get around to helping me with a paper, then perhaps you have too many people in your lab. The paper sitting on your desk for weeks and returning with vague "redo this whole discussion" comments does not count as you doing your job.
    Er, yes, I am taking out a teeny tiny bit of aggression towards GradAdvisor on you.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Guess when PhysioProf started his NRSA!!!??!?
    1999!1!!!

  • CC says:

    Since I'm in academic science, not industry, it follows that I'd prefer we not suffer any "brain drain" just because the careers suck so bad.
    Let's say postdoc X is considering switching to a tech position. She'd be giving up career prospects, prestige and authorship; her skills are (by definition) unchanged and her value to the lab probably increases as she can be moved to maximize benefit. You have to give her something to offset what she's giving up -- more money, fewer hours, less abuse. It seems straightforward to me that the same person has to be paid more for a tech track position than for a "training" position.
    If you or Bill has a contrary line of reasoning, I'd be curious to hear it.
    This is actually pretty consistent with a frequent tone that I strike in terms of wanting science careers to suck a little less for the currently transitioning generation.
    I'm not looking to reopen this can of worms, but while I share your concern, further privileging the grad student/postdoc track over professionalized technicians is precisely the opposite of the direction I think NIH needs to take.

  • pinus says:

    Maybe I have been lucky.
    I can be a cocky, pain in the ass, but I have always been able to recognize that my PI (as a grad student and as a post-doc) has played an integral role in my success. As time has passed I have seen how a PI can be aid in subtle ways. Sometimes that last 5-10% can be a real tough obstacle towards a great (read fundable) grant or paper. This is where the experience of a PI comes in. This is not to say that PI's get a free card. They are people. Every person has strengths and weaknesses.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Techs versus grad students/post-docs is not nearly as important a labor issue as what the fuck happens to superannuated post-docs if they do not transition into independence. There needs to be a much better system for establishing a non-second-class-citizen role for permanent PhD research scientists who can lead small teams within labs, can get paid a reasonable wage for doing so, and can be respected as valuable contributors to the scientific enterprise and not derided as "failed post-docs".
    Of course, these people will need to be paid substantially more money than entry-level post-docs who can be chewed up and, if they "fail", spit out at their higher wages and replaced with a new entry-level post-doc. In my opinion, the experience and developed skills of senior post-docs make them worth the extra expense.
    Finally, if we are going to analyze the PhD scientist labor market, we simply cannot ignore the elephant in the room, which is the large cohort of Chinese and Indian post-docs here on H1B visas who are willing to work for low wages. This cohort of foreigners surely drives down the prevailing wage structure

  • DrugMonkey says:

    CC: She'd be giving up career prospects, prestige and authorship; her skills are (by definition) unchanged and her value to the lab probably increases as she can be moved to maximize benefit. You have to give her something to offset what she's giving up -- more money, fewer hours, less abuse. It seems straightforward to me that the same person has to be paid more for a tech track position than for a "training" position.
    PP: Techs versus grad students/post-docs is not nearly as important a labor issue as what the fuck happens to superannuated post-docs if they do not transition into independence.
    The first point, CC, is expressed by PhysioProf in that the supposed future benefits accruing to the trainee are uncertain at best. Thus lowering their value, even within your schema. The second point is captured by the section I've bolded in your comment. From the lab perspective, whether the trainee is benefiting or not is immaterial next to the question of whether they are adding value by their work. And good postdocs are most certainly adding value to the lab. It's like these "unpaid internships" in a variety of businesses. My belief is that they are getting some value out of their "interns" that is in excess of whatever supposed training they are giving the intern. At least in the case of academic-oriented labs we start with an explicit professional responsibility to train scientists. What business (which makes use of "interns") has a legitimate claim to a similar professional responsibility? None that I know of...exploitation pure and simple.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Dude, I wouldn't call it exploitation. It is a labor market that is being influenced by much bigger forces than "exploitation" by lab heads.

  • Guess when PhysioProf started his NRSA!!!??!?
    1999!1!!!

    Meh, luxury! You try telling kids this today:
    FY92, $18,600
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-DE-92-005.html

  • bill says:

    If you or Bill has a contrary line of reasoning, I'd be curious to hear it.
    Don't drag me into this, dammit. (I am curious as to why you think I disagree with you?)
    Although now I'm here, I'll add that I appreciate PP's comment about "superannuated/failed" postdocs, since I'm staring down the barrel of being one of 'em. If I don't go from this (third; but the middle one was a fuckup in the middle of an immigration nightmare, so really second) postdoc to a junior faculty type position, I'm Royally Screwed: pushing 40, PhD-encumbered and no fuckin' prospects whatsoever.
    Which is why I'm working 80-100 hour weeks so I can cap this postdoc with a couple decent papers and start whoring myself out hitting the job market.
    But honestly, I don't have any need to be a BSD; I'd probably be happy to play 2nd fiddle to my current boss, who's a smart and a decent guy, for the rest of my career. (Well, I would if I could get him to come around a bit on the Open Science ideas, anyway.) I don't think I'll do better science as a PI than I would as a perma-doc; it's just that there is no perma-doc option.

  • whimple says:

    The biggest problem with the "superdoc" as I see it is not low wages, but rather lack of job security and benefits. If the grant isn't funded, the postdoc is out. The postdoc doesn't (usually) get matching contributions to a 401K retirement plan or equivalent. The health insurance for a postdoc is usually lousy. There could be made a sort of "senior staff scientist" position in academia, but this is unlikely so long as the labs are functionally independent fiefdoms.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    There needs to be a much better system for establishing a non-second-class-citizen role for permanent PhD research scientists who can lead small teams within labs, can get paid a reasonable wage for doing so, and can be respected as valuable contributors to the scientific enterprise and not derided as "failed post-docs".
    Hear, hear.
    Bill, if you're in the biomedical sciences, that position does exist. I know because I have one, and since I took the job, I've discovered other people in my department who have similar positions. If that's really the kind of position you want, I'd suggest asking your PI if he knows about openings and/or how to get your foot in the door.
    What's the job like?
    Non-second-class-citizen: Not a chance. People in non-tt positions are likely to always play second fiddle to the tt faculty.
    Lead small teams within the lab: Check.
    Get paid a reasonable wage: Check--slightly less than first-year tt asst. prof., but definitely more than postdoc.
    Respected as valuable contributors: So far so good. I have collaborations going with other tt faculty in my department which are independent of my PI, and was co-investigator on a grant my PI wasn't on.
    Derided as failed postdoc: Not that I know of, and certainly not to my face.

  • Bill says:

    "Postdocs have the option to switch tracks and instantly increase their income, reduce their work hours and stress, and regain the benefits helpfully stripped from them when they won a fellowship. If they're not doing so, presumably it's because those differences are offset by the benefits of postdoc status. (See my explanation thereof on the previous story.) That's how the labor market works."
    Not sure what field you are in, but in biomedical sciences this is not the case. Industry positions are almost as hard to get as tenure track asst. prof in academia. Also, postdocs normally do not become "techs", they either become staff scientists in industry, or do some sort of alternative thing like field application scientist.

  • Bill says:

    "I'm not looking to reopen this can of worms, but while I share your concern, further privileging the grad student/postdoc track over professionalized technicians is precisely the opposite of the direction I think NIH needs to take."
    I think my head is going to explode. Further priveleging grad students and postdocs??????? That is one of the most out of touch comments I've heard in a while.

  • bill says:

    in biomedical sciences this is not the case
    Plenty of biomed postdocs do become techs. Some of them are just looking for less hassle/same income, and some of them have "failed" too many times to get a foot on the faculty foodchain; I know people in both categories. What I don't know is anyone who's ever become a staff scientist in industry.
    Your "this is not the case" needs a "in my experience" qualifier.
    (Note: different bill. I'm too lazy for upper case most of the time and I link to my website.)

  • Bayman says:

    I'm looking at going into a post-doc currently, and I'm pretty cognizant of the fact that it's a make or break situation. If one didn't have to go through this demanding do or die situation, how would one ever become an independent figure in one's field?
    To my mind, you do a post-doc to get your one shot at the title. If you fail, you get dragged out into the pasture and shot. If you're not sure you can live with this kind of a risk, why the hell would you do a post-doc?
    I don't see why there needs to be a academic lab safety-net job for failed post-docs. There's all kinds of value to having bioscience PhDs working in other sectors like law, business, industry, agriculture - why should you be entitled to a cushy lab job just because you went for the hail Mary and bobbled the pass?

  • Bayman--because it's a loss to science every time a talented, hard-working thoughtful scientist who just isn't quite cut out for PI-dom leaves the bench simply due to the lack of another option.
    Also, because I don't think we should encourage the culture of science to be that of Glory vs. Getting Dragged Out Into the Pasture and Shot. Don't you think we have enough data falsifiers already?

  • blehhh says:

    I agree with PP's last comment. Couldn't have said it better myself.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    I don't see why there needs to be a academic lab safety-net job for failed post-docs. ~Bayman
    It's not about providing a safety net for failed postdocs, but providing an alternate career track for scientists who for whatever reason don't want to be PIs. The postdocs who truly "fail" by being unproductive don't manage to get the positions I'm talking about.
    Why wouldn't one want to be a PI? (1) Not wanting to spend most of one's time writing grants and/or teaching, (2) actually liking benchwork, (3) wanting to have, and spend time with, a family, (4) having a unresolvable two-body problem, (5) being geographically limited by spouse's position, etc.
    It's precisely because of this kind of "my way or the highway" attitude that lots of people, both men and women, leave science every year for lack of options for reconciling what they want out of a career and what they want out of life.

  • Bill says:

    "Plenty of biomed postdocs do become techs. Some of them are just looking for less hassle/same income, and some of them have "failed" too many times to get a foot on the faculty foodchain; I know people in both categories. What I don't know is anyone who's ever become a staff scientist in industry."
    Hey bill,
    That's very interesting. Are you talking academic technicians? To clarify, yes, in my experience postdocs have never gone this route. They seem to either 1: Do interminable, 6-9 year postdocs/instructorships and fall off the face of the earth, 2: Jump to industry in a staff scientist position, 3: Jump into an "alternative career" like science writing, consulting, etc. Maybe the "techs" you're talking about are research-track instructors? Or people who run core facilities?
    I definitely have never heard of a technician with a PhD. I'd think it would cause major problems in the lab, unless the PI was rich and gave them a LOT of money, as they would be overqualified for the position.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dude, I wouldn't call it exploitation. It is a labor market that is being influenced by much bigger forces than "exploitation" by lab heads.
    as usual I managed to confuse a couple of issues. when I said "exploitation" I meant that in the context of actual internships. Those completely unrenumerated positions that some of my friends were convinced were necessary to get their foot in the door of one industry or other following undergraduate graduation.

  • bayman says:

    It's not about providing a safety net for failed postdocs, but providing an alternate career track for scientists who for whatever reason don't want to be PIs.
    Of course not everyone wants to be a PI - that's fair. If that's the case, then why, after 5 years of PhD research, choose to continue on a course of training that exists specifically for the purpose of forging PIs in the fires of hell (ie post-doc)? I'm with CC that for those people at this stage who want to keep working in the lab, there should be a more attractive technician career available to post-PhDs who don't want to be PIs. I see a lot of people doing post-docs because, "hey it pays just as well as a technician, I get to take coffee breaks and vacation whenever I want, make my own hours and I can fly under the radar without working too hard". A system that attracts people to post-docs in this way is not doing anyone any favors. Offering a stable cushy job after 5 years of this is only going to make the EasyRide post-doc more attractive.
    I agree it would be good to have a senior technician position option for PhDs. The more attractive this position is (and it should be after 10 years post-secondary education), the less non-PI destined PhDs will choose to embark on a PI training program just because it's the easiest option available.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    bayman, Perhaps you could elaborate on what difference it would make to call senior PhD'd scientists "technicians" instead of anything else? I'm not sure I'm getting much other than a semantic distinction here. There are certainly ways a "technician" can be an EasyRider. It seems to me that it comes down to personal motivation to be a good participating member of the lab and the management skills of the PI more than it does the job title.
    To my mind, you do a post-doc to get your one shot at the title. If you fail, you get dragged out into the pasture and shot. If you're not sure you can live with this kind of a risk, why the hell would you do a post-doc?
    Your premise is incorrect. There are many ways to make a career out of being a PhD level scientist. Including ways to attain independent, R01 funded status which do not fit with your apparent view of "one shot at the title".
    I had some prior thoughts related to this
    http://drugmonkey.wordpress.com/2007/07/05/what-constitutes-a-real-job-in-biomedical-science/
    http://drugmonkey.wordpress.com/2007/07/06/routes-to-independence-beyond-ye-olde-skool-tenure-track-assistant-professorships/

  • Bill says:

    Yes, in the environment that I've worked in (biomed in the Northeast US), a "technician" is generally either a just-out of-school 20-something who is bridging undergrad with med school/grad school, or, much more rarely, a "lifer" who has been a tech for many years (probably akin to Drugmonkey's Turbo Tech). Generally the "lifers" are rare because they can jump to industry very easily and make twice as much money as an academic tech. In this type of atmosphere, who in the world would want to work as an academic technician long term? It's just not lucrative or rewarding (if you really love science you should get a PhD. If you kind of like it, but not enough to put yourself through the grind, I'd think industry would be the place to make a decent living).

  • bill says:

    one shot at the title
    I'll add to DM's cogent response that this kind of puerile, type-A macho bullshit is virtually diagnostic of someone who has skated through an easy life on privilege and is blithely convinced that they've earned everything by virtue of their talent, charm and good looks. That, or a sixteen-year-old who's just discovered Ayn Rand.
    The type-specimen for the species is the Free Market Republican, who is all about survival of the socially fittest until actual competition appears, at which point he (it's usually he) whines for a handout -- but it's an adaptable critter and can be found in a wide range of environments, even research labs.

  • bill says:

    Bill --- on reflection, it turns out I needed the qualifier more than you. I can *name* only one technician with a PhD, and she recently switched back to a postdoc. The other person I was thinking of actually did go into industry (though not as a staff scientist... not entirely sure what he does there).

  • Mad Hatter says:

    ...why, after 5 years of PhD research, choose to continue on a course of training that exists specifically for the purpose of forging PIs in the fires of hell (ie post-doc)?
    Some people don't realize that they don't want to be PIs till they're already in a postdoc. Some people's personal lives change during their postdoc such that being a PI is no longer as attractive or viable an option. Not everyone's life goes according to the plan they made when they started grad school.
    Maybe where you work is very different from where I work, but I don't know very many people here who've already decided not to be PIs, but choose to do a postdoc anyway because they think it's an easy job. And the postdocs here who take coffee breaks and vacations whenever they want and don't work hard get fired or otherwise drummed out of the system with lousy recs. The existence of what you call a "stable cushy job" should not attract the Easy-Ride postdoc type because those postdocs can't get those jobs with no papers and lousy recs. And if a true freeloading PhD-level scientist gets paid big bucks to do nothing by a PI, then the real problem is that that PI's an idiot.
    My "stable cushy job" involves managing a lab of over 20 people, mentoring students, supervising technicians, running my own independent research projects and writing grants. I work longer hours than most of the grad students and postdocs. Yeah, it's real cushy. Perhaps doing a postdoc wasn't strictly necessary for me to be able to do my current job, but I actually learned a bunch of stuff in a different field during my postdoc that is useful, broadened my expertise, and made me a better scientist.

  • LabRat says:

    "... if we are going to analyze the PhD scientist labor market, we simply cannot ignore the elephant in the room, which is the large cohort of Chinese and Indian post-docs here on H1B visas who are willing to work for low wages. This cohort of foreigners surely drives down the prevailing wage structure"
    While I definitely take PhysioProfs point that the large influx of Chinese and Indian postdocs into US universities has lowered the prevailing wage, I would also like to add that there are other foreign nationals (myself included obviously) who are here as postdocs on H-1B or J-1 visas who are also forced to accept much lower wages than we could get in comparable positions in our home countries.
    In my particular situation, I have a postdoc in physiology and wanted more sub-speciality training and as there is little (ie NO) funding available in my home country (let's just say I'm from the land of Vegemite), a trip across the Pacific was necessary ... and yes, I'm also on a H-1B visa. Saying that though, I should also point out that I could have walked into lecturing position at home (our equivalent of the US TT-Asst Prof) at a comfortably high salary but chose to get more intensive research training first.
    I'm not happy about the postdoc salary situation here as it's tantamount to slave labour but I take some solace in the fact that I've worked my fingers to the bone since I've been here (3yrs btw), published everything I have gotten my hands on (and when I say "published" I mean that I wrote my own papers without the PI doing the writing and putting my name on the top), have forged innumerable future collaborations, formed a strong professional and personal bond with my PI and have just managed to get a TT position at my first choice school. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but NONE of my fellow (Asian) colleagues have done any of the above except for working long hours and they ALL seem happy to progress to being career research associates/technicians.
    Just wanted to press the point that there are foreign nationals working in the US who aren't from the sub-continent and who are also appalled at the current postdoc situation here. Oh ... and did I also mention that the level of responsibility I have here is substantially LESS than I had as a PhD student at home?? Maybe that has something to do with the way things have evolved here ...

  • bayman says:

    Ok comments two similar remarks get to one of the main points I'm trying to make -
    Madhatter: And if a true freeloading PhD-level scientist gets paid big bucks to do nothing by a PI, then the real problem is that that PI's an idiot.
    and DM: There are certainly ways a "technician" can be an EasyRider.
    Not always, and yes but it's more difficult. The problem is that the current purpose of the post-doc is ambiguous. Is the post-doc the traditional apprentice slated to be the next generation replacement for the PI, or a labor provider?
    Right now, an apprenticeship stream (the post-doc, and even the PhD) is being exploited, in the majority of cases, as a low cost labor service.
    At any rate, the EasyRider can get on better (for a time) as a PhD or post-doc because it offers the cover of training to be an independent thinker, finding one's own path etc. This kind of independence is indeed necessary to become an effective independent scientist, but easily exploited by the EasyRider who gets the freedom without the responsibility of producing. Often, the EasyRider is not held accountable for their contributions (or lack thereof) until it comes time to move on to the next level ie PhD-postdoc, postdoc-job search.
    The technician has a much more formalized and specific duty to provide a certain type of labor to the lab.
    Science to do...finish later...

  • CC says:

    PP:
    Techs versus grad students/post-docs is not nearly as important a labor issue as what the fuck happens to superannuated post-docs if they do not transition into independence.
    Those aren't distinct issues, they're two faces of the same coin: relying on a stream of "trainees" for labor instead of creating sustainable careers for anyone besides PI's.
    Finally, if we are going to analyze the PhD scientist labor market, we simply cannot ignore the elephant in the room, which is the large cohort of Chinese and Indian post-docs here on H1B visas who are willing to work for low wages.
    Agreed, but that's a pretty large topic in its own right. And, frankly, there are forums better suited to discussing it than here at AngryWhiteAtheistBlogs. (Greetz to your new colleague, Angry White Atheist From Oklahoma, though!)
    DM:
    From the lab perspective, whether the trainee is benefiting or not is immaterial next to the question of whether they are adding value by their work. And good postdocs are most certainly adding value to the lab.
    Of course, but the same person is (almost) by definition going to add more value by switching to a tech role!
    Bill:
    Also, postdocs normally do not become "techs", they either become staff scientists in industry, or do some sort of alternative thing like field application scientist.
    I'm talking about academic labs, where I've known several postdocs and many grad students to switch. Why not go to industry? Geography, largely, plus lingering snobbery from their "training". But, as you say, PhDs are normally not even considered for non-PhD jobs in industry. (Which I think is stupid, but that's how it is.)
    I think my head is going to explode. Further priveleging grad students and postdocs??????? That is one of the most out of touch comments I've heard in a while.
    Yeah, that was a poor choice of words. I'd meant reinforcing the reliance on grad students and postdocs for labor over career professionals, not that life without dental insurance is so glamorous.
    bayman:
    Often, the EasyRider is not held accountable for their contributions (or lack thereof) until it comes time to move on to the next level ie PhD-postdoc, postdoc-job search.
    I don't think that's something that attracts those people, exactly, but this particular point squares with my experience: PI's seem to be much quicker to pull the plug on underperforming or dysfunctional techs than on grad students and postdocs. Probably because they have a business relationship with the former and a much more complicated noblesse oblige towards the latter.

  • bleep says:

    Stating the obvious: People with PhD's are knowledge workers. They're hired for their inside knowledge. Technicians are hired to for their skills. You can train anyone to be a technician but a PhD is supposed to have the added bonus of thinking and planning the direction of which course to take. A postdoc job just a temporary training ground so you can get to where you want to career-wise. It's hardly meant to be a permanent position. I know lots of people who want to have staff scientist positions and they are hardly "just" technicians. The problem is, if you attempt to do this you are often labeled as someone who "couldn't make it" to the PI level. The jobs are few and far between (that I know of) and there is also the feeling that this person is an annuated super post-postdoc. I think a staff scientist position is what is missing in the academic hierarchy, and it would address the plight of many bright postdocs who for whatever reason (lack of PI positions included) feel the need to get out of academic research.

  • windy says:

    To my mind, you do a post-doc to get your one shot at the title. If you fail, you get dragged out into the pasture and shot.

    People do several post-docs, at least in my field, so the "one shot" analogy doesn't make much sense. There may be dragging & shooting at the end of the post-doc years, but I know people who stayed in science for whom it was more like a "OK, best of three?" situation.

    Just wanted to press the point that there are foreign nationals working in the US who aren't from the sub-continent and who are also appalled at the current postdoc situation here. Oh ... and did I also mention that the level of responsibility I have here is substantially LESS than I had as a PhD student at home?? Maybe that has something to do with the way things have evolved here ...

    Could it be because US grad students tend to be somewhat younger and less independent, so the fledgling period is expected to continue to the post-doc? But that's comparing with Europe, so YMMV.
    Question from another foreigner: $36000 for a postdoc in 2008, is that low or average?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    windy, the NIH sets stipend levels for their training fellowships, both individual awards and for the people funded under an institutional training grant award (which will have several available "slots"). FY2008 remains at the FY2007 level which is outlined here.
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-07-057.html
    The $36,996 stipend is for zero years experience as a postdoc, i.e, the salary for the first year postPhD, typically.
    "postdocs" who are funded under other fellowships or paid from grant awards are not formally subject to this NIH training grant policy. Thus, it is hard to conclude what 'average' postdocs are getting paid based on this policy. However, IME, the NRSA scale is used quite commonly to set the pay for other postdocs as well. I do this in my lab, for example.

  • bill says:

    I do this in my lab
    That's laudable; it makes you one of exactly two PIs I've encountered who do this. I get about $38K, and my PhD was awarded in 1998. My last postdoc paid about $33K. What systematic data I have seen (e.g. put the http:// back into postdoc.sigmaxi.org/results/) are consistent with my experience: very few postdocs get paid anywhere near NIH scale.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    it makes you one of exactly two PIs I've encountered who do this
    I'm very disappointed to hear this. My institution has a current minimum pay for postdocs that is about the NRSA minimum, although there is no obligation to stick to the NRSA scale with accumulating experience. I am no longer in the postdocs-bitching-about-pay loop so my experience is limited, of course.
    I did have an experience a few years ago in the face of the jumping NRSA stipends where a couple of PI colleagues only a few years more senior than I were complaining about the situation. I really couldn't believe they were expressing the "I suffered so they should too" attitude....

  • Bill says:

    "I get about $38K, and my PhD was awarded in 1998. My last postdoc paid about $33K. What systematic data I have seen (e.g. put the http:// back into postdoc.sigmaxi.org/results/) are consistent with my experience: very few postdocs get paid anywhere near NIH scale."
    WHOA!!!!!! Hey bill, I'm really sorry to hear that, that to me is unconscionable. I'm paid by a fellowship from a private research society and it is actually a bit better than NIH standard, so I consider myself lucky in that regard. Most people I work with make at least the NIH minimum for their experience level, except for a few of the aforementioned Asian fellows who work for less because they don't know they should ask for more. My friend is paid by some ridiculous Australian fellowship and makes about 70K per year (he's got about 3 years experience). At any rate, is your PI really cheap? Or running out of money? Why do you stay? Just curious, I didn't realize that people were getting taken advantage of that severely.

  • bill says:

    At any rate, is your PI really cheap? Or running out of money? Why do you stay?
    No, he's a good guy, and apart from the fact that researchers are always in financial shite he's doing OK -- he's paying the going rate around here. If he paid more, he could well be out of a job himself because of the pressure coming down on him from above: why are you spending more than you have to on staff?
    Your numbers surprise me, especially the Aus one since that's where I'm from and the postdoc stipends I remember were a bit better than US ones but not that fat. I'd really like to get an updated version of the Sigma Xi study I linked; average postdoc remuneration was somewhere south of $40K in 2004, so I wonder what it is now.
    I stay because it's enough money to live on (though I'd like more job security), because as I said he's a good guy, because I'm really into the project I'm working on, and because I haven't seen any reason to think I'd be paid better elsewhere. I stay because, if I can get a couple publications out of this postdoc, I'll be in a halfway decent position to compete for junior PI positions, and I still want to give that a shot.

  • Bill says:

    "Your numbers surprise me, especially the Aus one since that's where I'm from and the postdoc stipends I remember were a bit better than US ones but not that fat."
    I believe the Aus fellowship is a CJ Martin. The reason it is so high is that he gets a cost of living allowance for living in an expensive city. Also, the Australian dollar is currently fairly strong vs. the US dollar so it makes it better. However, it is only for 2 years, then he either has to go back Down Under or go down to his Australian level salary (no cost of living allowance). So it is temporary but still very high.

  • LabRat says:

    Could it be because US grad students tend to be somewhat younger and less independent, so the fledgling period is expected to continue to the post-doc? But that's comparing with Europe, so YMMV.
    In Australia, a lot of students progress directly from an honours degree (either a 3yr bachelors + 1 year of honours research) or a 4yr bachelors to a PhD which then typically takes 3-4yrs to complete ... so a lot of our graduates are out the door with their PhDs around 25 years of age. IMO, the US college system tends to coddle students for too long and the nature of the US PhD system doesn't allow for enough independent thought and research - having to do several years of coursework and then being closely directed by a committee doesn't really seem to foster that.
    Australian postdocs are then essentially classified as junior faculty and are often operating as PIs on their own research ... the only problem is that there is very limited fellowship opportunities available and getting research funding is nigh on impossible without riding the coattails of an very well-established PI ... until the PI either retires or dies. Luckily my postdoc mentor here in the US recognised that I was capable of operating independently and has given me a lot of autonomy over my studies.
    Just some of the reasons why I am in the US and plan to remain here permanently ... oh, and the fact that I just landed my first tenure track position on the first try - WOO HOO :))
    I guess I should point out that I was 35 when I graduated with my PhD so that probably helps to disprove my argument!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    a lot of our graduates are out the door with their PhDs around 25 years of age. IMO, the US college system tends to coddle students for too long and the nature of the US PhD system doesn't allow for enough independent thought and research - having to do several years of coursework and then being closely directed by a committee doesn't really seem to foster that.
    since we're bandying stereotypes and all....
    My familiarity with the rapid progression model is with the Brits, not the Aussies but the perception is that this leads to scientists with a good theoretical grounding/orientation with rather blunted experimental and practical skills. The knock might be that this leads to scientists who are great at sitting around bullshitting about highfalutin' interpretations and inordinately clever experimental designs but they never seem to actually produce much data.

  • LabRat says:

    My familiarity with the rapid progression model is with the Brits, not the Aussies but the perception is that this leads to scientists with a good theoretical grounding/orientation with rather blunted experimental and practical skills. The knock might be that this leads to scientists who are great at sitting around bullshitting about highfalutin' interpretations and inordinately clever experimental designs but they never seem to actually produce much data.
    This might be true of the English, but, for the most part, it isn't true of Australian PhDs. The 3-4yrs of our program is 100% research so your thesis has to reflect 3-4yrs of full time work and is assessed externally by people who have had absolutely no input into its design, implementation or analysis. Theses typically yield >3 first author papers (mine had 6) and the lack of funding generally means you have to do all of the work yourself.
    That being said though, I'm happy to bandy stereotypes around until the cows come home ... particularly where the English are concerned :))

  • Chad says:

    I find it quite sad that a first year postdoc is making less than five grand more than some intro lab tech positions I've seen posted for companies and universities in my area.

  • bayman says:

    The knock might be that this leads to scientists who are great at sitting around bullshitting about highfalutin' interpretations and inordinately clever experimental designs but they never seem to actually produce much data.
    Ah yes. Data production. The true purpose of the scientist's existence. Mendel, Krebs, Delbruck, Monod, Beadle/Tatum, Watson/Crick. Those fuckers sure produced a lot of data. Good thing for us they didn't waste any precious time thinking about clever experiments and interpretation...If I keep my nose to the grindstone and do what PI says, maybe someday I can hope to produce as much data as they did!!!

  • whimple says:

    bayman: Ah yes. Data production. The true purpose of the scientist's existence. Mendel, Krebs, Delbruck, Monod, Beadle/Tatum, Watson/Crick. Those fuckers sure produced a lot of data.
    That's really funny. I like it. I wonder how much those turkeys pulled down in indirects too. šŸ™‚

  • PhysioProf says:

    My familiarity with the rapid progression model is with the Brits, not the Aussies but the perception is that this leads to scientists with a good theoretical grounding/orientation with rather blunted experimental and practical skills. The knock might be that this leads to scientists who are great at sitting around bullshitting about highfalutin' interpretations and inordinately clever experimental designs but they never seem to actually produce much data.

    Well, I don't know about "the knock" or "the perception". I do know that my direct experience with English post-docs in my own lab is the opposite. They have been excellent and productive experimentalists, but their relative youth and fewer years of thinking about science means they have needed more guidance in placing their work in a broad and deep context and, particularly, in their writing.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I wonder how much those turkeys pulled down in indirects too.

    Watson was a money-generating machine (not NIH indirects, but still vast sums of money). This is why his grotesque antics were tolerated for so long at CSHL.

  • DSKS says:

    The British system is the same as the Australian system by the sound of it.
    I did my grad work in the UK and have been a postdoc in the US since. There are pros and cons to both models, and of course the distribution curve in terms of 'good' and 'bad' programs is fairly wide in both countries. In the UK, if you're lucky (and luck plays a major part) and take a graduate position in a lab with a good mentor, there is a benefit to just getting straight down to research, publishing and graduating faster in the process. That benefit is not so much in terms of expertise, but the practicalities of earning a salary (even a postdoc salary) at a younger age. On the flip side, if you're unlucky you can end up with poor supervision, poor departmental support, and basically find yourself floundering with no direction at all. The US committee model at least provides the graduate student with a support structure external to their advisor, should a conflict of interests or apparent exploitation become an issue.
    "They have been excellent and productive experimentalists, but their relative youth and fewer years of thinking about science means they have needed more guidance in placing their work in a broad and deep context and, particularly, in their writing."
    I don't think you're far off the mark there. Experience in grant preparation was something I was seriously lacking coming out of my Ph.D. Both in terms of the craft and the substance. My first attempt was kicked back twice; first for being "too unfocused" and then for being "too focused" respectively. Live and learn...

  • Nat says:

    LabRat
    I don't know why you're so negative about the Australian science funding and salaries since they seem to be (at the present moment) vastly superior to the US situation. The NIH postdoc payscale would result in me taking a substantial paycut should I choose to move to the US.
    Everybody else:
    The Australian and New Zealand PhD programs/system are modelled/copied from the English system. So if you are really quick you can go from matriculation to submitting a PhD in 7 years (i.e. 25 y.o.). I took a little longer with a couple of undergraduate degrees and was 27. As for PP finding that people coming through this (English) system are unable to write; that's not always going to be true of Antipodeans. Because of the smaller infrastructure, at least in NZ, you have to do almost everything yourself. That includes writing papers. So you can have quite respectable paper writing skills coming out of an Antipodean PhD (LabRat had 6 for instance. I had about the same).
    Grant writing on the other hand might be the reverse since you can't reliably get funded as a young scientist unless you're writing with a series of very senior people with very good track records. This is something I am not good at and where I am entirely in debt to my PI.

  • LabRat says:

    Nat - while I totally agree re the grant writing and writing ability of Aust/NZ PhD graduates, I think the point I was trying to make about postdoc salaries and opportunities at home was lost.
    The number of postdoc opportunities, in Australia in particular, are very few although, granted, the salaries for those positions are higher than the NIH scales here in the US. Similarly, the number of postdoc fellowship opportunities, particularly in the basic sciences, are very few.
    I guess that was more my point. For example, when I was about to graduate in 2004-5, the number of postdoc openings in my field at home was about 2 for the entire country whereas the school I am at here in the US had that many available each week. So, if you can't find a postdoc position, then the issue of postdoc salaries is a wasted discussion.
    Also, even if you are fortunate enough to get a position or fellowship, there is typically very little funding available for your research, particularly in the basic, biological sciences where costs are astronomical and where research consumables and chemicals in Australia cost twice the amount they do in the US. The funding situation is bad everywhere right now, but at least in the US, we have at least 3 funding cycles per year (with the NIH anyway) and there are several mechanisms for junior/first time investigators whereas in Australia, the NHMRC has only one submission deadline per year and only one program for new investigators.
    Hope this clears things up.

  • Nat says:

    LabRat
    Thanks for the reply and I understand what you are saying. Things are clearly quite different between the basic biological work you do and the applied clinical and population health stuff I do.
    I have heard Americans complain that this situation is because there is a massive oversupply of basic biological scientists being trained (or used as cheap labour according to some commentators). I guess the same is true in Oz. Postgraduate biomedicine sessions at the major Australian University with which we are affiliated are dominated by non-patient focussed research so I guess if I had thought about it I would also have observed this here.
    Thanks for the clarification.

  • LabRad says:

    Nat - no worries at all. Good luck with everything.

  • DM says:

    PiT is taking on the postdoctoral delusion today.... to arms, disgruntled postdocs, to ARMS I say!!!!
    http://trainingprofessor.blogspot.com/2009/04/postdoc-perceptions-as-to-what-pi.html

  • Kea says:

    Get your guns ready, postdocs! Don't listen to this crap! Heh, maybe some PIs are wonderful people ... but get real.
    I started my first postdoc not long ago ... but as a mature researcher, and I know lots of shit that my PI doesn't know. I write several grant proposals every year, that always get rejected. So yeah, some help on writing proposals would be fantastic. So what does my PI do? Tells me that he read proposal X from last year, that the scientific content was OK but it was written incorrectly. Does he offer any tips on proposal writing? No. I write more proposals. I write a proposal for my own department, which he doesn't allow to pass internal screening. I get help writing the proposal from the university research officers. They say it looks OK. I keep writing papers, and work on getting them published (this is theory - there is no data).
    So what is my problem here? I mean, besides the fact that I'm the only woman involved in this story and some young white dudes were allowed to apply for the aforementioned local grant instead of me. And besides the fact that 25 years of abuse has ... er ... induced a permanent state of anger ... Heh, guess what? Maybe my PI is a prick!
    Yeah, get those guns ...

  • Robin says:

    Nice game of volleyball going on here, pass the ball to one side PI's, then it comes back to the postdocs. Well isn't this what it is all about.

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