Being A Junior PI Is Not Like Being A Senior Post-Doc

Jun 20 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

Young Female Scientist has an interesting post up today in which she manifests a very common post-doc delusion:

And there is this other aspect that most PIs don't want to admit: a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI. Admittedly, junior PIs don't get to give talks as often as senior PIs, but they give talks more often than postdocs.
The point of this comparison is that in at least some (!) cases the senior postdoc proposed the project, did the project, and has lots of ideas for where her project will go next, since it is presumably the subject of her future grants and lab studies.


Being a junior PI requires that one deploy skills that are completely foreign from anything a senior post-doc is required to do.
A senior post-doc is responsible for a particular project, and possibly supervises one or two technicians or grad students. A junior PI is responsible for multiple projects, and supervises an entire lab full of people, perhaps as many as a dozen.
A senior post-doc needs to motivate herself--and maybe one or two other people--to be productive. A junior PI needs to motivate a entire lab full of people to be productive.
A senior post-doc is not responsible for securing funding to support her project. A junior PI must take a limited amount of start-up funds and leverage it into long-term external financial support for an entire laboratory.
A senior post-doc needs to plan her research project on the time scale of a couple of years, essentially looking towards the next paper or two as an endpoint. A junior PI must take a long-term view of a minimum of five years for each project in the laboratory, and must also take a big picture view of how the projects relate one to the other and fit together in an overall research program.
A senior post-doc needs to have an impressive enough CV to convince a hiring committee to give the post-doc a shot at runnning her own operation. A junior PI needs to convince an entire field that their research is integral to the advancement of that field and develop an international reputation as an outstanding scientist in order to earn tenure and get to keep her job.
Finally, a senior post-doc is responsible for writing up and presenting research that she performed with her own hands. A junior PI is responsible for writing up--in grants and manuscripts--and presenting research that was performed by the hands of the trainees in her laboratory. The latter, as I will explain below, is a very different skill, and requires many diffrerent kinds of management skills--one of which I discuss below--that post-docs are never required to exhibit.
Female Science Professor has a post up today in which she talks about being an author on abstracts or manuscripts that she has never seen. The main concerns she expresses are that this means she has not had an opportunity to improve the writing, nor has she had a chance to ensure that the scientific content is not bad/bizarre.
However, there is another aspect to this which is even more dangerous in the other direction: PIs presenting work or submitting manuscripts that have not been closely vetted by the trainees who performed the experiments.
This even more pernicious flip side to what she describes is PIs being given data collected by their trainees, and then writing and submitting manuscripts without even showing the manuscripts to the trainees who did the fucking experiments.
This is very, very, very bad.
At best, it is a "business practice" that is guaranteed to result eventually in manuscripts being submitted whose conclusions are flat out wrong. This is because the people who physically perform the experiments are in the best positions to know the strengths and limitations of the data. And, most importantly, they are the ones who have decided which data is "no good" and which data are "interpretable". Without an intimacy with those decisions, one cannot sensibly discern whether the conclusions drawn from selected data are supportable.
At worst, this provides cover for misconduct: cherrypicking, massaging, etc.
Whenever any work product leaves my lab--abstracts, manuscripts, grant applications, seminar slides--it is always reviewed by whoever performed the experiments to be sure that the conclusions are supported by the data. And most of the time, the trainees who performed the experiments make figures and write up the work.
I always show shit to my trainees before presenting or submitting it and say: "Yo, can I say this shit? Is this shit right?" And I make it very clear that I embrace their criticism, and that I will never, ever, ever be angry if they tell me that my conclusions are wrong. But I will be very, very, very angry if they tacitly allow us to submit or present something that isn't correct.
It is a specific management skill to effectively get people you supervise to be completely open and free with telling you things they think you might want not to hear. And post-docs do not have to exhibit this skill very much, if at all.
Plenty of very productive and outstanding senior post-docs--who spend the vast majority of their time at the bench or rig--do not have what it takes to actually run a laboratory, and success at being a post-doc does not in any linear way translate into success as a PI, which is built on a very different skillset. I know people who were superb post-docs who spent all their time by themselves in a dark room sitting at a physiology rig, and who published multiple first-author C/N/S papers, who have been abysmal junior PIs and whose labs are in danger of failing.
It is absolutely delusional to think that "a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI". And adopting the attitude that this is the case is actually harmful to both senior post-docs and junior PIs.
It is harmful to the former, because this attitude gets in the way of them actually learning from their mentors what is different about being a PI. And it is harmful to the latter, because if you start your lab with the mindset and skillset of a senior post-doc, you are dramatically increasing the likelihood that you will not leverage your lab into a self-sustaining internationally known scientific entity.
Effective mentoring is a two-way street, and being effectively mentored requires admitting to oneself that there is something to learn from one's mentors.

67 responses so far

  • FSP says:

    Female Science Professor has a post up today in which she talks about being an author on abstracts or manuscripts that she has never seen. The main concern she expresses is that this means she has not had an opportunity to improve the writing.
    It's not just the writing -- in my post I mentioned both content and writing. Both annoy me, but bad/bizarre content is the one that makes me the most angry/upset.

  • PhysioProf says:

    FSP, thanks for stopping by, and for clarifying. I fixed the post.

  • Lisa says:

    I think YFS was just saying that a senior post doc has a very similar skill set as a junior PI, and thus can give a presentation as well as a junior PI, not that the day-to-day job requirements are the same. This must be true, at least for those senior post docs who are about to get a PI position, unless they are to change a lot in the few weeks/months between the end of their postdoc and start of their PI position.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Lisa, I think it is difficult to read the entire post on YFS and still arrive at the conclusion that MsPhD was limiting her remarks to giving a talk.
    What cracked me up were the following:

    On the other hand, you can't ask them anything technical, usually they don't know the answer. I actually saw a guy do this at a talk once, with what I think was deliberate aim: he asked several technically challenging questions in quick succession, and the PI speaker was basically stunned into silence. I was hysterical with silent laughter.

    and

    ... I can't emphasize enough how much it annoys me when a grad student or postdoc is asked a question about the history of their own field and can't answer it.
    ...
    I know she could have answered my question succinctly, in just 1 sentence that conveyed the traditional thinking as well as her personal take on it. ...

    Instead, I am left to conclude that she hasn't read the classic papers in her field (even though I have!). Which made me wonder if she's not one of these glorified technician types that some PI commenters are always complaining about

    W. T. F?????? The point of asking questions after a scientific presentation is to play some kind of gotcha one upsmanship? This is coming from MsPhD?
    Those are two examples of type of question I find absolutely maddening at a presentation. This is why the Good FSM provided post-talk receptions! If you do this, it is more about showing how great and smart you are than anything else...

  • Bill says:

    Interesting. So the skills one needs as a postdoc are in no way analogous to the skills one needs as a PI? So please explain why postdocs are spending years in your labs as "trainees" when you aren't really training them? This illustrates the scam that is academic science. Postdocs are told they are "in training" and thus do not get a decent wage, nor do they get credit for much of their work. Yet, from what you are saying, being a postdoc does not prepare one for being a PI. So, in reality, the purpose of a "postdoc" is to provide labor for laboratories, at a cheap rate. Let's be honest, very few PI's actually spend much time mentoring postdocs. It really doesn't benefit them to do so. It is much more helpful for a PI to get data from a postdoc, than it is for a PI to train that postdoc to be his/her future colleague.

  • PhysioProf says:

    No. You do need many of the skills you learn as a post-doc to be a PI: the scientific ones. It's just that as a PI, there are a whole bunch more you also need.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So the skills one needs as a postdoc are in no way analogous to the skills one needs as a PI?
    I read PPs post as describing only partially overlapping sets...could just be me though.

  • Bill says:

    So why aren't you teaching them the "whole bunch more" that they'll need? Still seems like a scam to me. I know you and Drugmonkey claim that you are all into mentoring, and if so that's great, but the fact remains there are almost no incentives for PIs to mentor their postdocs, and many (if not the majority of them) do not.

  • help! says:

    i can't keep up with all the abbreviations. what is FSM, drug monkey? or should i say DM?

  • Propter Doc says:

    There is one other major difference between junior PIs and senior postdocs: responsibility. With junior PIs, the buck stops with them. A senior postdoc, no matter how good, is always sheltered in part by the PI behind them.
    Being a postdoc gives you some of the skills to be a PI, but from day one as junior PI you realize that you need much, much more to survive. I don't even know how much more at this point.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    FSM = Flying Spaghetti Monster
    You do check the Glossary when confused, right?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I know you and Drugmonkey claim that you are all into mentoring, and if so that's great, but the fact remains there are almost no incentives for PIs to mentor their postdocs, and many (if not the majority of them) do not.
    I make few strong claims to being a good mentor or being "all into" it. I think the truth only emerges after a long career and a decent sample of trainees.
    I do, however, agree with PP's usual line that there are indeed strong incentives for PIs to mentor well. This does not mean that every PI is heeding such incentives or failing to find opposing incentives more powerful.
    Yes there are poor mentors. I don't think you have any idea what the ratio is, however. We have a tendency to be biased by highly salient cases of bad mentoring and a focus on high-profile labs which, in the grand scheme of things, may not account for a large fraction of trainees.

  • neurolover says:

    Using YSM's experience as a starting point for these discussions seems dysfunctional to me. Yes,I agree that the job a senior post-doc *should not* be the same as the job a junior PI. A senior post-doc should not be doing the things that you describe as separating the two (i.e. training a dozen of people, being unsheltered by the PI behind them, generating funds for their own research, . . . . But, YSM is describing a dysfunctional postdoctoral fellowship, in which she does much of what you are describing. In particular, it's not particularly unusual for senior post-docs to be generating funds, and in some cases, writing the grants that are submitted by the PIs in the lab in which they work. This is bad, but it's wrong of us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn't happen).

  • drdrA says:

    Bill-
    You are quite right that in general, much of what a junior PI needs to know is learned by on the job training in the first faculty position- and was not taught by a postdoc advisor. Yes, you can learn by example- but that all depends on the quality of the example, right?
    I personally think this is not a great way of training people- and there are a few of us out here including PP and DM who, in our own small way (speaking mostly for myself), are attempting to provide some insight... similar to that we provide for those that work in our labs... into what all is needed, advisable, or inadvisable to be an academic scientist.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I agree with Bill. Most postdocs and their mentors (PIs) know the drill very well: The former are looking for a paying job, preferably in a lab headed by a big shot with the hope that it will lead to a PI position; the latter are looking for a cheap labor in a fella who brings either an experience or an expertise in a specific, newly emerging field or who has published several papers in high-impact journals and has very strong recommendations. The training to become a PI should be part of the Ph.D. program.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    the latter are looking for a cheap labor in a fella who brings either an experience or an expertise in a specific, newly emerging field or who has published several papers in high-impact journals and has very strong recommendations.
    Hey Sol? I know things may have changed from back in your day but we don't just hire "fellas" as postdocs anymore. We encourage women to have careers as well.
    HTH, HAND!

  • helped! says:

    DM, i was not aware there was a glossary. k thx bai!

  • bob says:

    neurolover, does YSM stand for young spaghetti monster?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, fellas, guys, gals, whatever. do not try to interject sexism into my career. Both students and postdocs in my lab have been divided approximately 50/50 fellas/gals over the years.

  • msphd says:

    Young Spaghetti Monster here, I'll comment on your post over at my blog.
    My feeling is that you read it too quickly, or I wrote it too quickly, maybe both- and conflated points I was trying to make about very senior PIs with points I was making about junior PIs.
    Also I should clarify straight off- when I say junior PIs I mean pre-first R01 PIs, who should not (FSM help us all) have 12 people in their lab yet.

  • whimple says:

    My guess is that the vast majority (we're talking 99%) of PIs will NEVER have 12 people in their lab at the same time in their entire career.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    These "debates" between PP and YFS/YSM often seem like re-enactments of dysfunctional family dynamics. Neither "gets" the other, and it seems as if neither can accept or believe that the other's experience is real. So they attempt to seek validation from their readers that the other is delusional.

  • TreeFish says:

    I concur with the premise that the job of a senior post doc is fundamentally different from that of a junior PI, as was deilghtfully explicated by DM and PP. I also fear that some people's disgruntled view of science-ism is actively deteriorating the conversation into an us vs. them argument. Yeah, we're post docs and we've been so for (oh) 5 or more years. As PP might say, SO THE FUCK WHAT?
    We're training to be a PI. We watch our PIs; we observe their ups and downs, their time-off, how they balance home and lab life, what they say about 'our heroes', how they 'work the system' and rub elbows (or stand pints), and above all how they run their damn lab. Notwithstanding an occasional reacharound, these experiences aren't meant to keep us there. They're meant to be a puddle of experience which we can absorb. The sponges that absorb the experience sometimes grow into PIs that can run a lab. Life begets life.
    A senior post doc is the freshman in the shower, learning how to avoid getting ass-whipped by some 'roid raging wrestler dude with back hair (my metaphor for uber-PIs). No one will take you aside and explain how to avoid getting an ass full of boils and blisters (especially when you're naked in a steamy room made of painted cinder blocks that smells like bleach and BO). But, the ones who avoid living a life with a cactus ensconced in their rectum are the ones who absorb the whole experience (ups and downs) and can still add their insights to inspire a new generation of freshman.
    Bares bones: a senior post doc can give a great talk, have the hands of an Allman brother, and think up snazzy experiments. But that senior post doc has yet to stand up to the 'roid raging wrestler who likes to pee on people. A junior PI is the person that is walking up to said cro-magnon, ready to try his/her new reason to avoid the golden shower. If he/she can redirect the wrestler's rain to the drain, he/she can now teach others how to do the same. And a senior post doc can do all of this, but he/she is in danger of peaking too early.

  • hamburgg says:

    TreeFish, that was the weirdest analogy ever.

  • Becca says:

    I don't know if you care, but I'd vote for fewer complaints about YFS complaints. It's all a bit stale.

  • TreeFish, I've said it before and will say it again: you really need to start writing your own blog.
    Becca, I think that the authors here take YFS's posts very seriously and try to use them as discussion and mentoring jumping-off points. In fact, while this post is critical of YFS's view (assuming it was taken in the correct context, as YFS asserts above that it was not), the middle two-thirds of this post are quite supportive of her in discussing the "very, very, very bad" practice of PIs using mentee-generated data to write a ms, then never showing the paper to the mentee(s) before submitting. I am certain that YFS would have little trouble agreeing with this large bulk of the post.
    As for the use of the word "delusional" to describe the viewpoint expressed, a discussion has been ongoing this week on other blogs as to the appropriateness of using psychiatric terms to describe people or their viewpoints. The definition I could find of a delusion is, "a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact." Hence, I would submit that the use of "delusional" is premature until 1) we consider that what PP says is fact and 2) if YFS is resistant to reason or confrontation with these facts.
    My experience leads me to concur that PP's statements contrasting senior postdocs and junior PIs are factual in the majority of instances I have observed. However, there is always the small probability that I am delusional.

  • drdrA says:

    'We're training to be a PI. We watch our PIs; we observe their ups and downs, their time-off, how they balance home and lab life, what they say about 'our heroes', how they 'work the system' and rub elbows (or stand pints), and above all how they run their damn lab.'
    Yeah- ok, I agree that post-docs wishing to be PIs need to soak up everything from a good example. Much of the onus is on the post-doc to figure out how to get what they need, who knows the system, who is the best example etc. But from the other side- saying that you are training people by simply being an example- is kind of lame. Depends on the quality of the example- and 'training' implies some active effort on the part of the trainer...

  • I think you're harshing unneccessarily on Ms. PhD. As I read it, her post was about the fact that a Really Good Senior Postdoc knows about more projects than just her own; advises lots of people in the lab about their work; helps with the grant-writing process; AND does experiments. Physio, you imply that a postdoc only cares about the next paper. That's true of plenty of postdocs, but not the excellent ones--the ones who are already thinking several steps ahead in the game. And sure, a postdoc isn't "responsible" for guiding other people's projects or finding funding for them, but a good postdoc in the lab of an absentee PI (and they exist....in spades....) will be doing a lot of mentoring of other folks' work. That was what I took her post to mean.
    DrugMonkey--from the anecdote I took away that she was not asking a "gotcha" question; instead, she was hoping the speaker would say something like, "Historically, the view point has been BlahbdeeBlah, but I think my data point in a different direction of BloogdeeBloog."
    I'm with Becca--it often feels like you're angry at YFS and read her blog with an incredibly unsympathetic eye.

  • neurolover says:

    You know, the problem I see as not being acknowledged by PP or Treefish is that the system itself can be dysfunctional, and that the post-doctoral fellow is in an extremely vulnerable position, when the "mentor" doesn't live up to their side of the bargain. True, ultimately it's the post-doc's responsibility to get the training the require, to treat the position as a training position. But, if they are in a situation that doesn't work, they have no power.
    I analogize the situation to the situation of women in societies where their rights are transferred to their male family members. Sometimes male family members do a terrific job caring for the interests of their mothers, wives, and sisters. They try to make the best decisions they can for the benefits of the people whose rights are transferred to them. But, others don't. Others abuse those rights, and ignore them, and make decisions for their own benefit. In that circumstance, the woman has no recourse.
    Post-docs are in that same dysfunctional system. (Graduate students, too, but as students, they at least have the rights of students). Universities are recognizing this, but the PI system and the control over individual lives it entails means that some people will be damaged by the system.
    My only advise in those cases is that one needs to get out. We do not have slavery in this country (especially if you are an American), and you should get out or set short deadlines for yourself to leave an unsatisfactory PI relationship. Dreaming of a better tomorrow is something I want in a politician, but it's not a good way to plan one's career.
    (Can we start calling YFS, Young spaghetti monster? That was a typo on my part. Which, incidentally is one of the other pieces of advise that PP should offer for his Specific Aims.)

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    Drugmonkey,
    This is in response to a comment you made over at YFS's blog. I'm posting this here since YFS/YSM suggested to come over and spam you, and that sounded to me like an excellent suggestion 🙂
    From the little I've seen, it seems that you folks are in the business of giving advice on how to `play the game' and `succeed in the system'. All good and well, but here's the problem: The system really sucks! More specifically, succeeding in the system involves and requires "skills" and forms of behavior which have absolutely nothing to do with being a good and productive scientist. Many people who are otherwise excellent scientists have no talent or aptitude for this crap - they may be disadvantaged due to their temperament, personality or gender - and are losing out to other, often less talented scientists, who excel at it. (The evidence for this is everywhere once you start looking. There are loads of examples I could give you. E.g., why do you think the jobs rumor mill in theoretical physics was started? If you look into it you will find that one of the main motivations was to expose and shame the many departments that were hiring "charismatic" but less meritous candidates ahead of clearly better ones.)
    Does it really surprise you that these people are pissed off, and less than appreciative of the "helpful tips" that you guys have been providing? The fact that there aren't more of them sounding off in the blogsphere is testament to an atmosphere where anyone who complains is automatically seen as a loser trying to hide from the fact that their problems or failures are simply due to their own shortcomings as scientists.
    Here's an illustration of (some of) the "crap" that I'm referring to, courtesy of PP himself: In a post "Short Seminar Skillz" he informs us that
    "The question-and-answer period at the end is as much dominance-submission theater as it is an opportunity for clarifying and amplifying points made in your talk."
    and
    "Ultimately, your audience is going to remember a lot more about *how* you gave your talk than *what* you said. [...] So the most important thing is to come across as very smooth, adept, and authoritative. *You* are the expert on what you are talking about, and *you* are in the naturally dominant position in the speaker/audience relationship. You should exploit that dominance to create a powerful impression in the minds of your audience. These are the people who review your papers and grants, decide whether to give you jobs, promotion, and tenure, invite seminar speakers to their departments and to present at conferences, and vote on officer and committee positions in scientific societies."
    Well, although this is known to those of us who have been around for a while I have to say it's refreshing that PP comes out and admits these things openly. None of the pro-system bloggers I know of in the physics blogsphere would have the balls to do that. (Not all members of a science audience look at things this way of course, but many do. Especially the loud and often influential ones.) This illustrates pretty well one of the ways in which the system is really fucked up. Should we really be using performance ability in "dominance-submission theatre" as an important measure for assessing someones worth as a scientist? Come on.
    (And please don't try to tell me that being able to clearly present one's results is enough to get by adequately in the "theatre". As PP wrote, it's not about what you say but *how* you say it. And the receptiveness of the audience to having a "powerful impression" implanted in its collective mind depends on a whole lot of non-science-related things about the speaker which I hopefully don't have to spell out for you.)
    Moreover, the system fails to recognize and reward - and even punishes - skills and characteristics which are definitely correlated with ability to produce good science. For example, independence. YFS has already written about that, and I could go on about it at length, but this will do for now.
    One final thing. If you want to make people even more pissed off here's a good way: Start talking about how "Yes, its tough, and the system is less than ideal in many ways, but still it somehow manages to do a reasonable job of picking out the best scientists for career advancement while rejecting the lesser ones. Hell, it worked for me and my buddies in the end so it can't be too bad! If postdocs would only read my blogs where I tell about the insider tricks of the trade then they won't be at any disadvantage with regards to the non-science-related crap and their career outcome will be determined by the quality of their science alone!" Yeah right, sure it will.

  • bsci says:

    ancient physic psotdoc,
    More specifically, succeeding in the system involves and requires "skills" and forms of behavior which have absolutely nothing to do with being a good and productive scientist. Many people who are otherwise excellent scientists have no talent or aptitude for this crap - they may be disadvantaged due to their temperament, personality or gender - and are losing out to other, often less talented scientists, who excel at it.
    The above quote seems to be the core of your argument. The trouble is can you find one profession where this isn't true? Life isn't fair and qualified people lose jobs to lesser qualified people who can present themselves better. We like to think of science as some ideal meritocracy where the best and only the best rise to the top, but it isn't and there's no reason to think academic science will ever be a pure meritocracy.
    That said, we do need to look carefully and observe where academia is worse than other professions and also look for ways to improve the career process in academia. Many of the policy posts on this blog focus on this and many of the career posts on this blog try to illuminate the lesser-stated parts of the career process, which also helps increase fairness.

  • Bill says:

    I wouldn't advocate "spamming" this blog, I do think that Physioprof and DM are honestly trying to help people. On the other hand, they do exhibit a certain arrogance toward postdocs and their plight (to be fair, PP is much worse than DM, unless he is actually some profanity-spewing alter ego of DM which is a possibility, albeit a small one). At any rate, if you look below the arrogance and macho posturing, there are lessons to be learned (I don't have a link, but there was a great post by YSM about a year ago in response to a reader comment asking if all PI's are assholes. Short answer, no, but most of them are and probably have to be). It is very interesting to read this blog in conjunction with YSM, as they are polar opposites in many ways. I can see how YSM gets pissed off by their dismissive attitudes, and I can also see how they get pissed off by YSM's sweeping generalizations of PIs based on her experience.

  • Becca says:

    YSM: The emporer has no clothes
    DM: You're nuts!
    @Bill- I enjoy DM and PP, and think I can learn much from them. I will learn even more if they are responsive when I call them on the arrogance and macho posturing.
    @ancient physics postdoc- Your perspective is so interesting! I view the one positive to the subjective (albeit masquerading as objective) measures through which scientists advance as the influence you can create via well-done public speaking. Of course, I like giving speeches, and have just joined toastmasters (People applaud me! And provide positive feedback about my performance designed to help me improve! As a grad student, I almost died of shock from both.)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    app@#30From the little I've seen, it seems that you folks are in the business of giving advice on how to `play the game' and `succeed in the system'. All good and well, but here's the problem: The system really sucks! More specifically, succeeding in the system involves and requires "skills" and forms of behavior which have absolutely nothing to do with being a good and productive scientist. Many people who are otherwise excellent scientists have no talent or aptitude for this crap - they may be disadvantaged due to their temperament, personality or gender - and are losing out to other, often less talented scientists, who excel at it.
    Then you need to step back a bit and read more of what I write. You will find that I take shots at bad aspects of the "system" quite frequently. I have also been know to encourage you, yes you, to get involved when the opportunity is offered. Did you? Reportedly they got on the order of a couple of thousand responses...YFS' disgruntled postdoc brigade could have completely taken over that RFI, I would suspect, going by the hits we get when she avalanches us and the usual comment/lurker ratios.
    The fact that there aren't more of them sounding off in the blogsphere is testament to an atmosphere where anyone who complains is automatically seen as a loser trying to hide from the fact that their problems or failures are simply due to their own shortcomings as scientists.
    D00d. Until one has one a Nobel prize, just about anyone critiquing anything about the system is subject to this! lolz! I am fairly forthcoming about the fact that I will likely never publish in a Glamor Mag and my usual pubs are at a society journal level. If someone wants to dismiss what I have to say on this basis, so be it. Someone else will think otherwise. So sack up. Be confident in what you are. It also helps to be aware of your limitations, not so that you get depressed but so that you are 1) realistic and 2) open to self-improvement.
    I'll be explicit though. Nobody is accusing you or YFS or anyone else of being incapable of an independent career. I have observed that there are indeed some individuals in postdoctoral training who are not likely to make it, true. This has nothing to do with anyone who doesn't fit these characteristics. What I attempt to do with my comments on careerism is give those who are otherwise worthy some additional tools of which they may be ignorant. If you are familiar with these tools and have applied them to no avail, well, why would anyone take my posts as some sort of personal attack?
    Yes, its tough, and the system is less than ideal in many ways, but still it somehow manages to do a reasonable job of picking out the best scientists for career advancement while rejecting the lesser ones. Hell, it worked for me and my buddies in the end so it can't be too bad! If postdocs would only read my blogs where I tell about the insider tricks of the trade then they won't be at any disadvantage with regards to the non-science-related crap and their career outcome will be determined by the quality of their science alone!
    You are very seriously misconstruing what I have to say and my reading of what PP is saying as well. I suspect that there is a degree of projection going on in this sort of reading of our blog.
    I view my perspectives as potentially improving the odds in a system that is very far from perfect. I blundered into my independent position in no little part through circumstance and I continue to see (and blog about, I'll note) situations in which career success is very much not a function of how good the scientific ideas are. I also blog fairly frequently about how this human-based endeavor of science will never be only about some objective measure of the quality of the science. You might as well disabuse yourself of that notion right now.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    bsci,
    Academic science is different from other professions in some crucial ways. The goal is not to make money by performing some professional activity (defending a client in court, treating a patient�s illness, etc) but to discover more about how Nature works. Other things that make it (almost) unique are the �up or out� nature of careers, and the fact that most of it (in my field at least) is funded with public money. I think these things imply a much greater responsibility for basing career advancement on merit than in other professions. If a private firm decides to hire `one of the boys� rather than the best candidate for the job, that�s their business and their loss. But if a university science department does it then progress in science loses out and taxpayers� money is used less efficiently than it could be.
    Becca,
    Kudos to you for mastering the public speaking gig. I�ve tried, and have a lot of experience of giving talks at this point, but unfortunately� It�s not so much the `what� but the `how� that stumps me � how to come across as smooth and authoritative� In any case, as you alluded to, this is just one of a number of subjective things that we get judged on.
    Drugmonkey,
    According to YFS, she has followed all advices to the extent that it was possible and still finds herself being screwed by the system, having to deal with all kinds of things which are effectively denying her a fair shot at proving herself as a scientist. My own take on it is that it is one more manifestation of a very unequal playing field in academia. Some people make it through the system without too much trouble, provided they behave themselves and follow appropriate advices, whereas for others it doesn�t matter what they do, there is just no way through. There are many examples where the ones making it through are less meritous than the ones who find themselves blocked.
    I guess YFS�s frustration with you and PP is because you address yourselves to the insiders who are destined to make it through the system (although no doubt your advice makes the ride smoother for them) while seeming to take a �blame the victim� attitude to those who find themselves on the outside. Personally, as a newcomer to this corner of the blogsphere and not being familiar with your writings, I�m not in a position to have a strong opinion. But YFS doesn�t seem to be in any doubt�

  • PhysioProf says:

    Kudos to you for mastering the public speaking gig. I�ve tried, and have a lot of experience of giving talks at this point, but unfortunately� It�s not so much the `what� but the `how� that stumps me � how to come across as smooth and authoritative�

    There are a bunch of posts I wrote at the old WordPress Drugmonkey on exactly this topic. Go there and search on "seminar" or "talk", and they should come up.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    you address yourselves to the insiders who are destined to make it through the system
    I dispute this assertion. Referencing my recent repost, when I talk about opportunities for attaining a grant-writing position that is not a remote-location, full start up assistant professor offer, I am talking to an audience that may very well be destined not to make it to independence. People who do not feel free to uproot location or people who may very well not be as competitive on the available "-ology" job market.
    Even in places with which I am familiar that did (or do) the promote-from-within semi-routinely, one still had to be aware that it could happen and take steps to make it happen for themselves. Other places that have the less-than tracks with which I am also quite familiar require quite a LOT of fighting the institutional bureaucracy to make it happen. I'm all about encouraging people to look into their options.
    Whether YFS herself has attempted such steps is essentially immaterial. We're not attacking her choices and circumstances personally, no matter what she might think. At worst we're attacking the defeatist attitude.
    There are many examples where the ones making it through are less meritous than the ones who find themselves blocked.
    We are in agreement with the diagnosis. It seems that we disagree on the strategy for remediation.

  • PhysioProf says:

    While I, of course, have no insight into YFS's internal state or emotional reactions, my perception of what we are doing and my own internal state while doing so is that we are riffing off one another's commentary. Like jazz. The emergent outcome is a richer conceptual tapestry than would result if we were just blathering on individually.

  • bsci says:

    bsci, Academic science is different from other professions in some crucial ways. The goal is not to make money by performing some professional activity
    Academic scientists can of course take a vow of poverty, but we DO make money by performing professional activities. Our salaries are linked to teaching, publications, and public speaking. If we don't produce a product (knowledge in a publicly accessible format), we don't get paid.
    Teachers, public defenders, doctors in public hospitals, police officers, government bureaucrats, etc are also all paid by public money. The hiring practices in many of these fields can be improved. Still, these public professions provide a range of career duration salaries with good job benefits/insurances and gradual advancement options. They are all different from the science model where you spend approx 5+/-3 years post terminal degree at an undervalued salary and then need to leave the specific position if you weren't able to get a faculty job. (There are exceptions like staff scientist positions, but there are still rare and often not great jobs)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    They are all different from the science model where you spend approx 5+/-3 years post terminal degree at an undervalued salary
    How do we determine whether academic salaries are undervalued or not?

  • Bill says:

    "bsci, Academic science is different from other professions in some crucial ways. The goal is not to make money by performing some professional activity"
    That's crap. I think it is a rationalization that many people use to make up for the fact that they are incredibly educated yet make less money than the janitor who cleans up after them, or the bus driver who brings them to work each day. It is also the type of thinking that, in my mind, prevents progress in terms of how postdocs are treated. It is the type of thinking that enables places like Harvard pay postdocs LESS than the going rate, because it is Harvard and you should be honored to even be there. Oh, and you shouldn't worry about your salary, because your goal is to better society. Never mind that we, the institution, will make lots of money from your work, in the form of grants and overhead, and 70% or more of any intellectual property you may generate.
    That kind of thinking, while idealistic and noble, only feeds this system that we all rail against.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Never mind that we, the institution, will make lots of money from your work, in the form of grants and overhead, and 70% or more of any intellectual property you may generate.

    This is a bogus urban legend that universities "make money" from grant income. All of the numbers I have seen indicate that for every dollar of grant income for direct plus indirect costs, a typical university will spend a few cents net for the conduct of the research. That is, universities spend, rather than earn, money doing NIH sponsored research.

  • Bill says:

    "This is a bogus urban legend that universities "make money" from grant income. All of the numbers I have seen indicate that for every dollar of grant income for direct plus indirect costs, a typical university will spend a few cents net for the conduct of the research. That is, universities spend, rather than earn, money doing NIH sponsored research."
    I find that hard to believe. And even if so, more grants = more prestige for the institution = more money from wealthy benefactors.

  • bsci says:

    How do we determine whether academic salaries are undervalued or not?
    Postdoc salaries (at least on the biotech/engineering end) are undervalued. The NIH fellowship payscale is $37K for the first year post PhD up to $51K for 7 years after PhD. There's something a $5K boost for PhDs in engineering fields and some universities also supplement this.
    Here are the median salaries for doctorates by occupation is at:
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf06320/pdf/tab68.pdf
    These charts might include postdocs since they aren't a separate category on the salary lists. The MEDIAN salary for biochem is $42K for 5 or less years and $75K for 6-10 years post doctorate. It's $48K and $78K for medical scientists. Depending on what someone wants to do, there are clearly options to make a non-trivially higher salary than a postdoc right out of grad school. So yes, postdocs are undervalued.
    The full list of tables is at:
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf06320/tables.htm
    In general, the NSF surveys are very useful for getting this type of info: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/doctoratework/
    Another relevant chart to this discussion is:
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08307/#tab7
    For all the talk of fewer faculty jobs, there are actually a greater % of PhDs in education who are

  • Arlenna says:

    "This is a bogus urban legend that universities "make money" from grant income. All of the numbers I have seen indicate that for every dollar of grant income for direct plus indirect costs, a typical university will spend a few cents net for the conduct of the research. That is, universities spend, rather than earn, money doing NIH sponsored research."
    Erm, actually, at our institution they take our grant money and put it in a big interest-bearing account and make money off it while they dole it out to us month by month. We know this from the times we've had funding where the funding body required us to recoup any interest so acquired, and had to fight the university tooth and nail to scrape it out of them. My guess is most universities do this, since it's an awesome money maker for them, they just don't tell anyone and their lawyers have complex ways of avoiding people finding out unless it's absolutely necessary.
    Now, whether or not that interest money actually ends up as real profit to them or just a way to offset the costs of allowing people to do research there, I do not know.
    BUT on another note, as a 5-year post-doc who just got a first tenure-track faculty job at a big research university this spring and starts in August, and had some trials and tribulations with one PI (but lucky me I had two and the other one was an awesome mentor in every way)...
    Making the changeover from fully experienced senior postdoc to junior PI is like having children: you can't imagine what it will be like until you do it, and it is always way, way more than you every thought it would be.
    You think, "Yeah, I have learned so much about managing people and training people and writing grants and papers, I can totally do this," and yet still when you get to it, it's a new surprise every day, and you find you need EVEN MORE inner resources than you stockpiled during your postdoc (when LOL you thought you had built up as much as you could possibly hold and take). I had many examples (trainees, papers, original research ideas, successful K99/R00 grant app) of being a real "science grown-up" that I demonstrated over the last few years of my postdoc, and yet AND YET as I start to do the junior PI thing, I realize how mickey mouse they all were compared to what I'm really gonna have to monumentally wrangle as I build my science world over the next 5-10 years. I have birthed my research program/teaching responsibilities bebeh, and now I am gonna see what it's like to not sleep, have time to take a shower, talk to grown-ups, and do the dishes until it is old enough to get a job for itself.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I had many examples (trainees, papers, original research ideas, successful K99/R00 grant app) of being a real "science grown-up" that I demonstrated over the last few years of my postdoc, and yet AND YET as I start to do the junior PI thing, I realize how mickey mouse they all were compared to what I'm really gonna have to monumentally wrangle as I build my science world over the next 5-10 years.

    Now that you're a PI, you just hate post-docs and can't possibly understand what they go through, you fucker!

  • Arlenna says:

    lol. Indeed.
    In all seriousness, I plan to make a deal with my first post-doc or two where they agree to work on my stuff and my ideas for ~2 years and I guarantee them (as best as I am able to secure funding support) ~2 years of support (if they can't get their own grant) for them to start developing their own ideas in my lab. When you're starting out as a PI, you need people to work towards your tenure success--but post-docs really need the opportunity to work towards their own PI-dom success at the same time. Maybe this "timeshare" idea could work...

  • PhysioProf says:

    I plan to make a deal with my first post-doc or two where they agree to work on my stuff and my ideas for ~2 years and I guarantee them (as best as I am able to secure funding support) ~2 years of support (if they can't get their own grant) for them to start developing their own ideas in my lab.

    This kind of discrete separation of "your ideas" from "their own ideas" sounds nice on paper, but turns out to be incoherent in practice. There is almost always a gradual shift in the contribution of ideas over the duration of a post-doc from weighted heavily towards the PI in the direction of the post-doc. (This is assuming a situation other than a post-doc coming to a PI and saying, "I have this specific idea. Can I do it in your lab?")

  • Arlenna says:

    "This kind of discrete separation of "your ideas" from "their own ideas" sounds nice on paper, but turns out to be incoherent in practice. There is almost always a gradual shift in the contribution of ideas over the duration of a post-doc from weighted heavily towards the PI in the direction of the post-doc. (This is assuming a situation other than a post-doc coming to a PI and saying, "I have this specific idea. Can I do it in your lab?")"
    Yeah, I know. I am just trying to figure out how I can possibly serve the full needs of a postdoc towards getting ready to start their own lab during the first 5 years of starting mine. For my own postdoc experience I was allowed to do pretty much whatever I wanted as long as I was writing papers on it, and that freedom and ownership contributed directly to my developing research plans for my independence. But it is much trickier to see how that could fit in when the PI needs the work in the lab to be going towards their goals, not those of someone who is just a few years behind them in the race to find a niche. I'unno what to do yet. In order to be fair to any post-doctoral trainees in my lab, we'll need to clearly delineate what needs to stay with me and what they get to have for their own, since I hope to gawd I can start with a precedent of avoiding either of us being parasitic on the other.

  • PhysioProf says:

    In order to be fair to any post-doctoral trainees in my lab, we'll need to clearly delineate what needs to stay with me and what they get to have for their own, since I hope to gawd I can start with a precedent of avoiding either of us being parasitic on the other.

    I know this is common practice, but I find it objectionable. This is science, not feudal Europe.
    My understanding with my post-doc advisor was that when I left his lab, we would each do whatever the fuck we wanted. We naturally went in different directions, building on the common foundation of what we did collaboratively.

  • Arlenna says:

    Yeah, but was your postdoc advisor your same age and trying to do the same thing as you but just two/three years ahead of you?
    I mostly worry about what will happen to my early postdocs' CVs when we're both sorta transitioning together over a few years of time; and how I could incentivize a young, motivated, productive person to come to my lab where I kinda need them to help me get tenure rather than them just being able to do their fabulous thing. Can you see how it's a bit of a different situation than for somebody more established?
    After all, you may find it objectionable but it is a big part of this "system" you guys know well. Finding a faculty job requires having a "thing," and getting tenure requires having a "thing," and two people working together towards their each individual "things" are in danger of screwing each other over pretty majorly unless things get talked about and communicated.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Yeah, but was your postdoc advisor your same age and trying to do the same thing as you but just two/three years ahead of you?

    He sure was! I started in his lab as a post-doc the day they gave him the keys to his new assistant professor lab. He and I developed interesting projects together, and then diverged quickly after I started my own lab.
    Funnily, there is one very specific area in which, after I left his lab, we both established the same technical and fundamental conceptual basis for understanding a particular physiological phenomenon in our model organism of interest.
    Our papers were submitted contemporaneously, but the one from his lab went to a lower-impact journal, and got published very quickly. Ours went to a higher-impact journal, and was sent back to us for substantial more experimental work. By the time we resubmitted, his lab's paper had published.
    One of the reviewers said our paper should be rejected and sent to that same journal, and also upbraided both me and my former mentor for "not deciding who was going to work on what". Fortunately, the editors ignored this fucking maroon and published our paper! I showed the review to my mentor when I saw him next at a conference, and we laughed our asses off together.

  • Arlenna says:

    Well I hope something like that happens to me. I would love to have a partner in crime for my first postdoc. I just can't bank on it. Maybe I'm just burnt out from mentoring so many "projects" to feel like anybody could give me a functional relationship. Please, oh gods of the internets, give me a good postdoc (or two? is that pushing it? yeah...)

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    bsci wrote: "Academic scientists can of course take a vow of poverty, but we DO make money by performing professional activities."
    Or not. In the departments I've been in there have been a number of faculty who weren't doing research, or who were making a token effort at it with negligible results. This included full professors. And they weren't making up for it with extra teaching. And no, the people I have in mind were nowhere near retirement age.
    If a school teacher stops doing a major part of his/her job he/she loses it. If a lawyer stops taking clients, or if a doctor stops seeing patients, they don't get paid. If a tenured academic at a supposedly research university effectively stops doing research they can still happily collect their pay check for the rest of their days.
    So, controversial as it is, I stand by my assertion that academic science is different from other professions in *some* crucial ways. My contention was/is that these differences imply a greater responsibility for basing career advancement on merit. (It would be nice to minimize the number of tenured faculty in science departments who end up being zero-researchers, don't you think?)
    I never meant that this justified anything to do with postdoc life and treatment. Why did you and Bill decide to read that into what I wrote?

  • Bill says:

    "Why did you and Bill decide to read that into what I wrote?"
    Uh, because that's what commmenters on blogs do. We read into comments and respond to them. What you said came across as very idealistic, regardless of what you intended. It's pretty hard to read minds, especially through cyberspace.

  • Rectoratician says:

    It's pretty hard to read minds, especially through cyberspace.
    and especially when wearing a tinfoil hat to keep out the CIA mind control rays.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The Kirsh has one up on the "Plight of the Postdoc" today. Some column she wrote for Science Progress.

  • bsci says:

    ancient pyhsics postdoc,
    In most places, even tenured faculty salaries are linked to job duties. For example, even for a hard money position, one might be required to teach 3 courses a year and sit on a committee or two. That is what they need to do to earn their base salary. An active research profile and grant money can boost their salary significantly. There is no place that I know that would allow a faculty member tenured or not to do absolutely nothing and let them keep their job.
    I also wrote a response to DM's comment #40, but it seems to have been eaten.
    An NIH postdoc salary goes from $37K-$51K. Engineering PhD can get an extra $5K and some places to pay more.
    Median salaries for people with science/engineering PhD by occupation are at:
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf06320/pdf/tab68.pdf
    Many professions for 5 years or less work post PhD are above this level and for 5-10 years they are often might higher. Yes, postdoc salaries are undervalued.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Many professions for 5 years or less work post PhD are above this level and for 5-10 years they are often might higher. Yes, postdoc salaries are undervalued.
    I rescued your comment, too many links triggers the filters.
    The thing is, bsci, I understand that postdoc salaries may be less than some other job category but so what? People who come out of the same bloody university with a bachelor's degree make wildly different salaries 5-10 years out. People without college degrees, ditto.
    Some jobs that look pretty damn hard and unbelievably important to me (primary and secondary education) pay less than similar jobs which are seemingly much easier and for that matter more personally fulfilling / selfish (say, SLAC professor).
    So on what basis do you think that biomedical postdocs deserve as much as some other reference category of PhD wielding job-holders?
    (and don't get me wrong here, I'm happy to learn new arguments for why I need to get paid more money!)

  • bsci says:

    The best comparison for postdocs would be other jobs that directly involve scientific research. If you look at the salary list, those jobs tend to pay slightly more than postdocs for the first 5 years and much more after that. Thus, similar work requiring a similar skill-sets pays less if you are in academia.
    The argument that a postdoc salary is lower because you are also getting valuable training falls flat because most of those postdocs don't end up in academic positions that directly relate to the extra training and industry people ARE being trained to advance in their industry.
    As I've mentioned in a few other comments here, I'm less concerned with the salary of the first 5 years of postdoc-hood than where it leaves you afterward. If I thought my salary was ridiculously too low, I wouldn't be a postdoc.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    bsci,
    I guess the possibility to get away with being a zero-researcher after getting tenure depends on the university and country. I've seen this more in Europe, but have also noticed cases at smaller, low-tier research uni's in USA where someone maintains a token research program and publishs junk in junk journals.
    But anyway, there's a better reason for increased meritocracy in academic science compared to other areas: the scarcity of jobs. There are so many of us investing so much of our lives for a shot at just a few jobs, so I think that puts a moral responsibility on the community(or "system") to make the selection process as transparent and objectively merit-based as possible. The job scarcity also means that progress in science and efficient use of taxpayers money is more dependent on the best people getting the jobs. (In other professions, people that reach some reasonable level of competence are pretty much assured of finding a job, but not so for us.)
    But besides that there is much else that sucks about the system from the postdoc perspective... I liked the suggestions you made in the Care bear post, and at Dr. Free-Ride.

  • PhysioProf says:

    It seems pretty clear that the "system" results in well-qualified people not making it to PIdom, but what evidence is there that anyone is making it who is not well-qualified?

  • heh says:

    It seems pretty clear that the "system" results in well-qualified people not making it to PIdom, but what evidence is there that anyone is making it who is not well-qualified?
    personal bias

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    @PP: No one is claiming that unqualified people are making it to faculty/PIdom. The claim is that, often, less accomplished (but still well-qualified) people get jobs ahead of others who are more meritous. I'm hardly the first person to point this out, and I would love it if you decided to dispute it - the edvidence is overwhelming and I promise to drown you in it 😉
    @heh: believe it or not there are objective ways of measuring these things.

  • PhysioProf says:

    The claim is that, often, less accomplished (but still well-qualified) people get jobs ahead of others who are more meritous. I'm hardly the first person to point this out, and I would love it if you decided to dispute it - the edvidence is overwhelming and I promise to drown you in it 😉

    I've got my goggles on. Let's go swimming!

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    Ok then! I hope those goggles won't distort your view... Give me a few days to put this together, I'll post it here when it's ready. (There will be lots of links, so it will probably end up in the spam filter; hopefully you will see it and rescue it.)

  • Lab Lemming says:

    "The training to become a PI should be part of the Ph.D. program."
    Because, you know, PhD programs exist only to train faculty.
    If we don't train them as such, then they may take theor research skills back into the broader community and infect it with scientific know-how.

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