Should I hire a postdoc or a technician?

Aug 25 2008 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

The comments following a recent post touched on the newly independent investigator dilemma of who to hire first: A postdoctoral fellow or a technician? We'll leave aside the best answer ("both") as impractical because, as Professor in Training noted,

I only have enough money to pay ONE postdoc's salary for 18 months ... or ONE tech ... that's it. While that would be great for me, that's certainly not enough time for a postdoc to get more than one study done (in my field probably only 75% of a study). Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

YHN tends to recommend "tech" and PhysioProf tends to opt for "postdoc"...sounds like a new discussion to me!


To define terms just a little bit for those less steeped in the biz, I covered the job category of "technician" here:

A "technician" in the biomedical sciences is an employee of the laboratory (well, actually of the University) who is not "in training" (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) and does not (usually) have a terminal doctoral degree. (For example long-term PhD scientist employees who are too far along to really be "postdocs" and are not PIs are not really "techs".) Most typically the tech has a bachelor's degree in a scientific major and a few will have advanced credentials such as Veterinarian Tech specialties or subject-based Master's degrees. It is not unusual for the tech to have continued her education while working in the laboratory by taking advantage of University educational repayment policies.

One of the most important parts for today's discussion is that the technician can be viewed, non-pejoratively, as 100% an employee working "for" the lab head or Principal Investigator (PI). Someone who is expected to do what is asked at all times with the goals of furthering the lab agenda. In this employment relationship the PI is unequivocally understood to be "the boss".
A postdoctoral fellow/trainee is a person who has acquired a terminal doctoral degree (Ph.D., D.V.M, D.D.S., M.D.) and is working under the supervision of an independent investigator. Here one key difference is that the postdoc is in a dual role, the balance of which is debated. The postdoc is considered a "trainee" in the sense that s/he is working in part for her (his) own benefit, to acquire skills and tools that will be required to obtain and launch an independent research career. This notion implies a degree of independence from the PI, an ability to work on stuff other than what the PI has "told" her (him) to do, possibly to work on stuff that is only of benefit to the postdoc (and not the lab or PI directly), etc. I happen to believe that the postdoc also has a responsibility to help the lab and, in essence, to do the job for which s/he was hired and to make all data generated accessible to the PI...but not every postdoc agrees with that. In truth it is also likely that some PIs either explicitly or implicitly think that postdocs are basically indistinguishable from technicians when it comes to the employment relationship. So there's a spectrum.
Okay, so why do I think a tech is more important to secure for a brand new PI?
That isn't your job anymore. Scutwork. Tedium. The stuff that is absolutely necessary to the running of your lab which is not particularly demanding in intellect and may be incredibly time-consuming. Yes, you specialized in this as a lowly graduate student and took pride in the fact that you were able to do this work as a postdoc while still doing more high-falutin' intellectual labor. Postdocs around you who couldn't find their behind with both hands when it came to the basic work were to be derided. Fine. But this is not your job anymore!!! My position is that the more time-consuming scutwork you can get off your plate the better. Since nobody likes scutwork, it is far better to rely on an employee who is paid to do a job, can be readily fired and replaced, for this sort of thing.
Your first deceptively hard question as a new PI is that of determining which tasks in the lab really do not require your input, after basic training and given that you will continue to supervise and troubleshoot. I say deceptively hard because my experience in talking with some fairly advanced postdocs and even junior faculty is that they have not really thought about this question. They get stuck in the usual traps. "It is more work than it is worth to train somebody to do this." "I only trust my own work/data/analyses." "My hands are the best." "This is too important to screwup." Etc.
All true. Being a PI takes a big leap of faith in the work of others. This is, in my view, part of the deal. For the huge increase in scientific terrain you are able to cover as a PI directing the efforts of other scientists, you are accepting the risk that someone else is not as good as you*. So get over this. Your job is to learn how to set up your management style such that you can tolerate human frailty and still make excellent progress on what interests you.
Progress and Work Ethic. Management of personnel is one of the hardest things for new PIs to learn. After all, we were motivated self-starters so we can't really understand why everyone else would bother to be doing this stuff if they weren't self-wackaloon-motivated. Sadly, not every one is just like you (ibid), new PI! Which means that you may have to evaluate an employees work effort and apply some judicious boots to the posterior. Perhaps even with threats of dismissal and actual dismissal for poor performance. It is very much easier to do this with a technician who is supposed to be working 100% at your behest.
Stability. In most cases postdocs will be transient visitors to your lab, lasting 3-5 years at best. So sure, a good one may get you through tenure. But postdocs can and do leave for all kinds of reasons. Their interests and relative focus on your stuff necessarily changes as time elapses. The tech on the other hand, can be a more or less career employee in whom your investment over time continues to pay you back over intervals of a decade or more.
Availability. Unless you are very lucky or very HawtStuff, recruiting a good postdoc to your laboratory is far from given. I've seen this from all ends, as a postdoc, peer of postdocs, mentor to postdocs , as a PI seeking fellows and as a peer to other junior faculty looking to hire. I've seen situations in which the fellow (or grad student) was very focused on joining the lab of the local BigCheez and quickly evolved to be working most closely with local junior investigators because the fit was so obviously better. The bottom line is that for a postdoc the prospect of joining a starting Assistant Professor's lab is very much of career concern.
An additional concern with availability is that it is not unusual for postdocs and PIs to come to arrangements far in advance of the actual start date. Very anecdotally, I'd say the better the candidate, the more likely this is the case. So a junior PI who manages to recruit and lock-in a highly promising candidate may have to accept that she will not be arriving in the lab for a year. That's a big hit, especially if that is the first year in which teaching loads have been reduced. Technicians are typically hired with a fairly short lead time on the order of weeks at worst.
Data Stream Strategy for the Long Haul. This one verges dangerously close to the argument over being an investigator who operates on the cutting edge at all times versus the small-town grocer. So YMMV. If, however, you have an aspect of your research program which can putter along with relatively little input from you, is of lasting importance to your scientific goals and interests and, most importantly, can support a steady stream of bread-and-butter publications I recommend getting this going. It is not necessary that the tech does all of the work up to publication-quality figures, of course, mainly that s/he is able to generate good quality and interesting data at your direction. Or the tech is capable of doing most of the work with you sailing in for the essential parts.
It is all very well and good to shoot for GlamourPubs. If you manage to get them, you are set. I get this. Not getting them is, however, excusable. In most environments, meaning that even if not in your specific department you can get a job elsewhere. Perhaps one theoretical tier down, but still a research-focused job. What is not optional is publishing somewhere, anywhere**. When it comes to most decisions that matter, tenure and review of prior progress when it comes to grant review, 0-fer is not excusable. Published articles can be debated on their merits with respect to actual impact, importance, brilliance, what have you. A lack of publication can not be debated or defended***. Admittedly the postdoc who is half-decent has a greater possibility of getting all the way to a submittable manuscript. But the bread-n-butter tech is near guaranteed to make sure the data are available to writeup when you are feeling the publication pinch.
Final Thought. It basically comes down to risk management from my perspective. If you can get a very good, hardworking postdoc right away the choice is pretty clear in opting for the postdoc. I am quite pessimistic, however, that new PIs can pull that off. When it comes down to a postdoc who will not show up for 12 months, a postdoc who is lazy, distracted or really focused on interests that are not sufficiently in line with yours...well, the technician wins every time.
Update: One thing I forgot to mention originally but was reminded of by the first comment. The chances of getting a technician working for you for free are next to zero. It is possible to get a postdoc for free, however. A postdoc may come with their own fellowship (there are many international-study type fellowships where a country funds individual fellows to go abroad, for example) or you may be able to secure a slot on a local institutional training grant for your postdoc. This is not a guarantee but these situations are considerably more likely than getting a technician working for you but paid for by some other source of support.
__
*almost by definition, the fact that you are a PI now means the smart money bets you were a better-than-average postdoc. Very likely you had more motivation, intellectual curiosity and, yes, better experimental hands than the average bear. Which means that on average, postdocs that come into your lab are going to fall short of the standard of you! (Yes, even accounting for an inflated view of self.) Deal.
**"anywhere" means "peer reviewed" and is environment specific. Whatever your field considers the supposedly lowest denominator or a minimally respectable "dump journal" or whatever.
***usually. I could tell you some stories. But really, make it easy on yourself and publish something already!

41 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey: thanks for addressing this issue. You and I are definitely on the same page re reasons for preferring a tech over a postdoc ... but I also understand PhysioProf's point of view as well. Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to have both right now (unless my new department has something up their sleeve that I'm not aware of yet).
    As a new PI who will also have substantial teaching responsibilities, I think that I need, initially at least, someone with good hands and experience to whom I can give a list of tasks to complete. As a postdoc, I didn't want to be treated like that and expected to have some input into my studies which meant they took longer than they would had they just been assigned to a tech. Finally, as you noted, taking on a postdoc would be making a committment to further their research training and I wouldn't be happy doing this without having the financial resources to guarantee anything beyond 1.5 yrs. One of the previous commenters suggested that the postdoc(s) could just apply for fellowships to cover their own salaries, but as with all other funding avenues, these are extremely competitive and are by no means guaranteed (I would think this would be especially true with a new PI/mentor).
    I also agree that a tech is more likely to stay in the lab for the long haul compared to a postdoc (assuming the conditions are reasonable and the work is interesting) as most postdocs are willing to relocate almost anywhere for the right position, be it another postdoc, industry or TT position whereas techs are more likely to be locals.
    I know I'm generalizing a lot but it's a big decision to make ... and I'm going to have to make it pretty soon so any/all input is welcome 🙂

  • Well, I think we all know where I'm going to come down on this issue. Getting yourself a decent tech has got to be your first step in the new position. I'll add to DM's categories:
    1) Not your job anymore: you can train your new tech to do whatever assay/run whatever protocol exactly like you want it to be done. If you acquire a postdoc who is familiar with the assay/protocol, chances are they are going to want to do it the way they are familiar with doing it. Obviously there's nothing wrong with their protocol. I just imagine that it's tough enough to let go of the benchwork, nevermind if your postdoc isn't doing things the way you want them done.
    2) Progress and Work Ethic: There are more than anyone's fair share of shitty technicians, so there is certainly no guarantee that you'll end up with a good one. But with your 100% ownership of your tech, you can set deadlines and goals and plans, where postdocs will tend to rail against such micromanagement. It's also a hell of a lot easier to get rid of a bad tech than a bad postdoc, especially if they get their own money.
    3) Stability: Unless they bail for grad/law/med school, or the huge cash pile of MassivePharma (like me), you've got a dedicated set of hands that you can count on day in, day out. Techs don't tend to attend conferences in far-off locales just when you have a grant renewal coming, or beg to set up collaborations with far-off labs and then disappear for weeks. I've also known a lot of postdocs who decide that a postdoc isn't really what they want out of life, and subsequently quit to teach elementary school. In my experience this is a more common occurrence with postdocs than with techs.
    4) Availability: There are many more people graduating from school with a BS in bio sciences who need jobs than there are people finishing grad school and looking for postdoc positions in your specialty. Techs also tend not to care so much what the research topic is (broadening the pool of applicants), where someone looking for a postdoc lab will probably only be considering labs in their field (narrowing the pool of applicants).
    I'll also add that you might have a harder time attracting a postdoc to your lab if it's just you (as awesome and cool as you may be) without a tech. Any potential postdoc with a fraction of a brain could tell that it's going to become their job to do the ordering and setting up and the scut work of organizing the lab, plus doing all the troubleshooting to figure out why the new microscope isn't taking pictures, why the new TC hood is blowing dust all over, and why your new university isn't letting you order syringes or ethanol.
    Not that I'm knocking postdocs! The upside of a good postdoc (intellectual contribution to the lab, novel research directions, etc) can outweigh many/most of the contributions of a good tech (continuity, stability, progress on a project). From my (clearly biased) perspective, techs get things done that must be done to keep the lab moving. You can't count on a postdoc to do these things, nor should you expect a postdoc to do these things.

  • Beaker says:

    I wrestled with this issue when I began my PI job. Most colleagues told me to get a postdoc, and I did. It has turned out OK, but in retrospect, a tech might have been just as good, or better. There are a lot of factors to consider (as beautifully outlined by DrugMonkey), and the specifics are going to vary a lot from place to place. For example:
    1. I did not feel it was appropriate for the postdoc to spend time organizing the stocks of plastic cell culture disposables, ordering supplies during the startup period, organizing the -80 freezer full of constructs, etc. I thought the postdoc's time was better spent on doing the science. However, that meant that *I* got stuck doing that dog work. So, if you have a lot of crap lab work that needs to get done in order to make your lab productive, either be prepared to do it yourself (not a good use of your precious time), delegate it to the postdoc (with the risk of making them feel like a tech)--or get a tech.
    2. Postdocs and techs are expensive in my neck of the woods. I identified a great postdoc candidate (second postdoc, with training and expertise in my research area). This person was prepared to join my lab and jump right into the project--until I told them what I could pay them from the startup. Freshly-minted postdocs and techs are cheaper and that was all I cold afford. That meant that they had to learn the skills they needed on-the-job.
    3. The continuity thing mentiond by DrugMonkey is important--it is hard to know how important this will turn out to be in your case, except in retrospect. Now that my postdoc is trained it would be great to have those skills around in the lab for years to come. The transition of expertise to the next postdoc is not guaranteed to go smoothly.
    4. I started as a (very good) tech myself. If I could find and retain somebody like that, it would benefit my young lab more than any postdoc I could attract as a young investigator who is not world famous. My university is not prestigious enough to attract the very best postdocs; most of those end up at the top schools--and who can blame them? If you manage to attract a tech who's aspirations are to be a hard-working small-town grocer," that's fine. That's an ideal tech, actually.

  • Arlenna says:

    I've commented before on how I feel about roping in a post-doc at this stage of my lab's life. I am in the process of hiring a technician to be exactly what you describe up there: someone as a stable data-generating, instrument-maintaining force in the lab to help everyone else's lives run smoothly and to be my hands in a bunch of fairly tedious (to me) experiments that need to get done in the next year. None of those are things I would feel comfortable asking of a post-doc at this point. I want the lab to be a place that post-docs can come play with our toys and play on our ideas, and not have to also be Mom or Dad of the rest of the brood (and I also want some help being Mom--I'm looking for a tech who can be like my au pair).
    Incidentally, I am getting a postdoc this year, a grad student in my department who wants to do something interesting for a year while her husband finishes his PhD in the department. Then they will both move on together to a more extensive postdoc experience. This is ideal for both of us: We both need 1-2 papers out of a certain project this year, she wants to learn the techniques I use in the lab, and we are not asking each other for long-term commitments. I think I will feel much more comfortable with this kind of clearly mutually beneficial situation.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Look, this is all very field and sub-field dependent.
    If your science only progresses when a highly trained individual sits at a complicated piece of machinery generating data in a linear fashion--one measurement at a time--then you *must* hire a post-doc as quickly as possible. Period.
    If your science progresses by doing hundreds (or thousands) of mini-preps per week, or whatthefuckever, then perhaps hiring a tech first makes sense. Or if you have a huge transgenic mouse colony that needs to be maintained through constant crossing and genotyping, a trained tech is probably the forst person you need to hire.

  • BugDoc says:

    I'm with DrugMonkey on this one, and think a good technician is a key element in getting your program up and running quickly so that you can focus on things only you can get done. Obviously, if a superstar postdoc application happened to come your way - go for it. As stated by others though, that doesn't happen so often when you are first starting your lab. An important caution if you are thinking about taking on postdocs that may not be stellar: these are trainees and should be able to count on your help and support in finding a position when they leave your lab. If they are mediocre scientists, you will eventually be in the unenviable position of writing recommendation letters for someone who may not be the strongest job candidate (for any job, not just academic positions).
    I was lucky enough to have a great technician, who is now doing very well in graduate school. However, my first postdoc, who was extremely smart and came from a good lab, did not really know what he wanted to do and over time became really unmotivated, mopey, uncollegial and sucked the life out of every meeting we had. Knowing what I know now, if I had to choose between them, hiring the technician would be a no-brainer.

  • pinus says:

    I think peepee has a great point. Some types of science do not lend themselves to technician's producing data. People who practice those types of science should probably be looking for postdocs 1st.

  • Certainly some fields of biology require more intellectual input and technical skill to acquire data, and if your lab is a lab that does this kind of science, a brilliant postdoc is what you need.
    When you're a brand-new PI just starting up your lab, your chances of getting a brilliant postdoc are slim. I see no circumstances where you should sit around waiting for a postdoc to join you, when you could have hired a tech already. You should know how to use your fancy machine (if this is the kind of lab you run) - minus a postdoc, at least you can be generating preliminary data while your tech gets the rest of your lab set up. Data plus a functioning lab = better bait for postdocs than an empty lab you expect your postdoc to jump-start.

  • DSKS says:

    Agree with Pinus and PP. It's often easy to train someone how to simply use a piece of equipment (you could teach an undergrad patch clamp in a week). But it often takes experience to really understand how it works and why, how to troubleshoot when problems come up, and often how to identify that there's a problem in the first place.
    All this said, relating back to previous discussions, it's possible that the future will see a new type of super-techy emerge among postdocs who, by choice or by necessity, float into the job market as geeks for hire rather than pursue independent careers. That's if such a specialized tier of workers can be sustained in the current academic funding environment.

  • May says:

    Regarding the possibility of postdocs obtaining fellowships to cover salary, how much impact does the seniority of the PI have on the application? I received one of the study-abroad type fellowships that DM mentions above to fund my move from distant land to great white north, and for the various programs I applied to the 'assessment of training environment' counted for 15 - 25% of the overall score, depending on the agency. It was pretty strongly implied that if you weren't going to go work with an established 'name' investigator you'd struggle to get the funding. I'm not sure if the assessment criteria for internal US fellowships usually have similar requirements though.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I'm not sure if the assessment criteria for internal US fellowships usually have similar requirements though.
    For the much-vaunted NIH NRSA individual postdoctoral fellowship, my experience is that the PI is very important, yes. This does not mean that it is impossible to obtain one as a postdoctoral fellow in a junior PI's lab. Sometimes the NRSA may be written in a collaborative mentoring fashion that includes BigCheez and JrMint as supervisors. Sometimes, the NRSA awardee may decide post award (wink) to work with JrMint anyway....

  • juniorprof says:

    Both DM and PP have excellent points. I would like to point out that if you don't have enough money for a tech and a postdoc in your startup perhaps you should consider renegotiating... For those that work with rodents or bigger species its hard to imagine that you would not need both.
    As for the NRSA, the approach that DM is a good one and is one that potential NRSA seekers should strongly consider. There is nothing wrong with having multiple mentors within a dept and this approach can greatly enhance your training plan insofar as it can be strong evidence that you will learn a variety of experimental approaches to go after your scientific problem.
    My question is, where do you find postdocs that are eligible for the NRSA? I have been approached by many potential postdocs and none of them are either US citizens or permanent residents. Where are these postdocs? They are obviously somewhere because the NRSA applications haven't gone down. My person opinion is that NIH should consider expanding the NRSA applicant pool to include postdocs on H1B visas.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    Since post-doc funding and technician funding often come from different sources, why not apply for both and structure your research to allow you to use whichever you get the money for?

  • PhysioProf says:

    This does not mean that it is impossible to obtain one as a postdoctoral fellow in a junior PI's lab.

    Absolutely! I was an NRSA awardee as the first post-doc to join my mentor's lab, and my first post-doc was an NRSA awardee. The single most important key to a successful NRSA application with an inexperienced mentor is to have a very detailed explicit training plan section of the application.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My person opinion is that NIH should consider expanding the NRSA applicant pool to include postdocs on H1B visas.
    Dear Disgruntled American Postdocs,
    Please note that statement was made by juniorprof. That's J. U. N. I. O. R. P. R. O. F. Please direct your hate mail gentle inquiries to him/her, not me.
    HAND,
    DM

  • juniorprof says:

    Dear Disgruntled American Postdocs,
    If you're looking for a postdoc and want some mentorship on getting your NRSA together I'm your man. You can find my contact info on my blog. For the record, though, I'm skeptical that you really exist but now is your big chance to prove me wrong.
    J.U.N.I.O.R.P.R.O.F.
    P.S. The lab does totally hawt work on a totally hawt topic that just landed on the NIH roadmap.

  • Odyssey says:

    Obviously the decision as to whether to hire a postdoc or a tech depends on many things, including your field, the experiments you need done over next year or two, and your management style. However, if you are unsure as to which would work best, why not advertise for and interview both? That way you can take the best candidate, be it a stellar tech or a first rate postdoc. The small amount of extra time spent this takes is well spent. It's amazing just how much you can learn from the process. The first lesson learned will be just how many applications you get from people with absolutely no qualifications for the positions.
    Having said that, unless you're at a Big Name school, the odds of attracting a first rate postdoc to a newly-minted PI's lab are very low. But if one comes along, hit them over the head with the nearest heavy object and have that ball and chain fitted before they come around.

  • Pawel says:

    One suggestion: other than a postdoc and/or a tech, get yourself a nice bunch of freshmen/sophomore undergraduate students. It may not apply to all departments, but candidates to med/grad school will be more than happy to work their butts off for you for a nice letter of recommendation to the said med/grad school plus maybe a letter of support for a scholarship or two. They will do the time-consuming assays, take care of your cell cultures, do the dishes and so forth. I am a postdoc right now, but I am working on a decent number of projects just because I can trust my undergrads to do my cloning/cell passage/RNA extractions/genotyping/other time-consuming crappy work for me. True, they are there just for a few years, but so are postdocs. True, they are not there full time, but it just takes some scheduling and planning ahead to get them to work most efficiently. True, it takes time to train them, but they more than pay for the time you spent training them in terms of the workload they can take. And, here's the sweetest part, they are free! So if you are at an institution with a lot of undergrads going towards med/grad school flock'em up to your lab and reap the benefits.

  • TreeFish says:

    Another zinger by DM!!! What the hell would we do without you and your sage advice?! Probably this: http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/6b60dcb21c
    I have been told that a tech is a better move. My peeps have relayed that, since the intellectual/emotional/resource investment in a post doc is so steep, you really want to wait for the 'right one' to come along. However, if you're doing patch-clamp physiology or unit-recordings, a tech can't really be expected to get the job done. There are plenty of post docs out there, the funding for whom SHOULD BE included in your start-up package (c'mon 3 years at NIH scale + fringe is only $150k!).
    I am lucky enough to have been approached already about a post doc position in my lab (which is at an unknown location right now cuz I'm on the job market). I want to be in a biggish city so that I can add that to my list of reasons to join the TreeFish lab (plus, I'm addicted to the smell of dumpsters, diesel power generators, and urban curb ooze). If, however, you are in a rural setting like U of Iowa or U of Kansas, you can stress the benefits of a rural milieu (e.g., low cost of living) and try to incubate home-growns who might otherwise be reluctant to leave their families/sod.
    DM and PP would be better sources for recruiting post docs, but I try to drink my head off with as many friends/colleagues that I've met through the years so that people (1) stay up to date on my scientific progress; (2) I stay up to date on theirs; (3) I can get word out to grad students/undergrads that I am recruiting post docs/grad studnets; and (4) I get my colleagues drunk enough to put them in precarious social situations that I can use against them come tenure letter time.
    That said, if you are great at patch-clamping or tetrode implantation surgery AND you like to drink and talk the balls off of a rhinoceros, hit the conferences and poster sessions and go for the post doc (douse them with free beer, always a deal sealer). If you don't like to drink and talk, hire the tech but understand that you'll be doing the patching and implanting, with the tech doing the bulk of the data analysis. A post doc will eventually come along as an emergent property of your lab set-up, provided you continue your trajectory toward, as PP says, escape velocity. Just my two cents.

  • juniorprof says:

    And, here's the sweetest part, they are free! So if you are at an institution with a lot of undergrads going towards med/grad school flock'em up to your lab and reap the benefits.
    Although I recognize that this has been the way of the scientific world for some time, I find this practice very distasteful. These people do work that would be paid for under any other circumstance. With the possible exception of situations where such students get scientific credit, I think that this is a malicious practice. When I was an undergrad I worked in a lab for 2 years. The first semester I got credit (3 hrs) and was unpaid. In the following 1.5 years I was hired as part-time technician and the payment I received was enough to allow me to not to have to work another job.

  • CC says:

    Although I recognize that this has been the way of the scientific world for some time, I find this practice very distasteful.
    This is kind of like the postdoc-versus-tech salary issue. Undergrads doing interesting work get compensated with experience, recommendations and possibly publications that offset the lack of salary. (As someone who had to work in college and didn't have time to labor for free, I do recognize the rich-get-richer angle here.) Undergrads doing tech work get paid.
    That said, it does sound like Pawel is using some of the former to do the work of the latter. Preps are one thing but unpaid undergrads shouldn't be washing glassware.

  • Pawel says:

    I don't think the practice is distasteful. They ARE getting useful and fun experience (at least I make sure they do), they are greatly increasing their chances of getting into med school, which in the long run is going to pay for their effort, they are being put on publications. As for washing glassware, we have a dishwasher - how much effort can it be if you load a dishwasher and the autoclave for 1 month out of a year (yes, we split the duties between them)? Would you say dishwashing is more distasteful for them than to be wiping butts of some old ladies in a geriatrics ward? That's their other option as far as volunteering goes - and a lot of med school candidates actually do it FOR FREE. Plus, if they are not wealthy, they can benefit from the work-study programs at our institution in which the PI pays for half and the institution pays half of their salary. We are not on the program, just because we are on a very tight budget, but a lot of our student volunteers (almost all that apply) get really nice scholarships from our institution for the work they have accomplished in the lab.

  • juniorprof says:

    Would you say dishwashing is more distasteful for them than to be wiping butts of some old ladies in a geriatrics ward?
    Nice. Miss that empathy gene much?

  • Odyssey says:

    Although I recognize that this has been the way of the scientific world for some time, I find this practice very distasteful. These people do work that would be paid for under any other circumstance. With the possible exception of situations where such students get scientific credit, I think that this is a malicious practice. When I was an undergrad I worked in a lab for 2 years. The first semester I got credit (3 hrs) and was unpaid. In the following 1.5 years I was hired as part-time technician and the payment I received was enough to allow me to not to have to work another job.
    I typically have three or four undergrads working in my lab. They are paid unless they're working for credit. I pay them because I think they're worth it. I have had some incredibly talented undergrads work with me, some of whom have earned first authorships. If I hadn't paid them, they would have had to have found a part-time job somewhere else and I would have made less progress. Undergrads are cheap. Do the right thing and pony up the $'s.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My view was shaped by the distinct WTF???? I experienced in senior year of college when many of my peers were discussing unpaid internships in various employment sectors to "get experience" that was supposedly going to be required to get a paying job. I thought it was exploitation then and I do now. When I am able to do so my preference is to pay undergraduates the going rate (meaning minimum wage in most cases).
    With that said, I return to my practical side. If the standard around you is that people volunteer for free (and by the number of undergraduates who approach me thinking they are going to be volunteering for free I think this is common) and they seem to think they are getting something valuable (the recommendation letter, a resume line item, etc)... well, I don't see that this is a big ethical knock on anyone. I would hesitate to apply what is my personal ethical standard on this internship crap to anyone else as a requirement.

  • Pawel says:

    Thank you DM! It is true that a lot of people do an unpaid internship/volunteering/etc. to get a paid job afterwards. This is clearly the case in my lab, where most people go off to med school and the lab experience gets them to a good institution, followed by good internships and a nice lucrative private practice. In my lab the volunteers often get paid as techs later on if they prove to be really good and, if we can afford it, we pay work-study. Besides, again from the purely practical side - I have found that unpaid voluteers are much more motivated and helpful than people who treat it just like a job. And, on quite another note, I personally don't think a lot of this crap in the academic research world is ethical from a purely idealistic point of view that juniorprof seems to represent. Is it fair for postdocs to be paid a 9-5 salary and work 9-10? It is just a fact of life, just like unpaid volunteers know they have to do it to get a nice cosy medical practice in the future. Another practical point - a starting faculty on a tenure track with no stable funding needs to count every penny and unpaid volunteers are what allows him/her to get his research program kick-started. Then he can afford to pay students when he gets his R01 or such, but before that he better get every opportunity to get stuff done cheaply, and student volunteers are just one such opportunity.

  • juniorprof says:

    Pawel, My beef with this is that it places those that cannot afford or don't have time to work their tail off in an unpaid, volunteer lab opening at a disadvantage. For a 20 year old trying to make it through undergrad even minimum wage can make a big difference (and will certainly determine what you have time to do).
    The other issue is that entrance interviews and admittance policies for med school are such a load of crap that the current situation creates too much opportunity to take advantage of the situation.
    But more than anything, I just think that work for no pay (money, not some promise of future wealth via entrance to med school) is wrong. Many people have died for this principle, you know, its not too much for us to take a bit of a stand.

  • Arlenna says:

    If your institution can get federal work study support, undergrads can be really cheap to you while still making a decent part-time wage for themselves. The work study program pays ~70% of their wages, so if you get them set up at $8-10/hr, you're only paying $2-3/hr as long as they are eligible for work study (and within their alloted amount of work study total aid).

  • JB says:

    Just wanted to cover a point that hasn't been mentioned yet:
    The number of postdocs and students that you train is important. You might be judged on the number of highly-qualified personnel you have trained when comes the time to apply for a promotion, tenure, etc. This is particularly true in smaller universities. Heck, even some salary support awards will look at that.
    Often, a lab tech isn't worth anything in that type of evaluation.

  • B L says:

    Get over yourselves. A technician, particularly a career one, is not some monkey that cannot be trained. If a lab requires intellectual talent, you might find it in a technician. I work at a university where techs outnumber grad students 2 to 1 and the difference between the two groups is minimal in their abilities to acquire new skills and apply knowledge.
    The difference you might be interested in is one of longevity. A tech will be there for one or two years max before they go to grad school or med school but a post doc might grow with the lab and could be there for many more years or transition into a research associate.

  • PhysioProf says:

    A tech will be there for one or two years max before they go to grad school or med school[.]

    These are absolutely not "technicians". These are post-graduate trainees.

  • Bill says:

    "A tech will be there for one or two years max before they go to grad school or med school[.]
    These are absolutely not "technicians". These are post-graduate trainees"
    Funny, they're called technicians every place I've been. Haven't seen a lot of career techs, and really, who would want to put up with that long term?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Many of the technicians that I've had in my lab and seen in surrounding labs enter with at least some mind to further post-graduate study. Many of them do exactly this, leaving the technician job in 2-3 years to go to graduate school, med school, vet school or what have you.
    Others of them decide that the technician's job is what they want to do for a longer term.
    Yes they are called "technicians". But I try to adjust to their needs and goals. If they want to act like early career grad students and be more involved in the research, design, present posters and in a few cases even draft up papers- great. So I am happy to treat people as "post-graduate trainees" if that is how they want to work it in my lab.

  • juniorprof says:

    Agree with DM. I'd also note that I think there are some very serious regional differences on the kind of technicians that are available for hire. I think the true "career technician" is a common thing on the east coast particularly in and around the Ivy League (and Canadian equivalent) Universities. In the middle of the country, perhaps ranging all the way to Unis that have a direct view of the Pacific Ocean, these types of people are very, very rare.

  • A tech will be there for one or two years max before they go to grad school or med school but a post doc might grow with the lab and could be there for many more years or transition into a research associate.
    I'm going to have to disagree on this one. The techs I work come from a range of educational backgrounds including bachelors and masters degrees and a couple of overseas-trained MDs who do not want to be PIs. They are ALL career techs with experience ranging from 10-35 years. Most postdocs stay for 2-5 years and those that don't either go to another postdoc position or transition to a junior faculty gig elsewhere will occasionally move into an associate post. It's the techs in my labs that have provided the continuity between studies over the years as postdocs come and go like clockwork.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I specifically seek post-graduate trainees for my lab, and am not interested in employing career technicians.

  • I specifically seek post-graduate trainees for my lab, and am not interested in employing career technicians.
    PP: your lab is already established. The original discussion was about whether to hire a postdoc or a technician to get a lab up and running initially. To get the lab operational and to begin to generate data I feel as though a technician is the most logical choice but at the first opportunity, I intend to hire a postdoc.

  • Bill says:

    "I think the true "career technician" is a common thing on the east coast particularly in and around the Ivy League (and Canadian equivalent) Universities. In the middle of the country, perhaps ranging all the way to Unis that have a direct view of the Pacific Ocean, these types of people are very, very rare."
    Speaking from my own experience (grad school at east coast major research university and postdoc at east coast Ivy League major research university) career technicians are quite rare. The vast majority of techs in labs I've worked in, with, and around, are just out of college and transitioning either to med or grad school. I'm sure this varies by field, university, department, etc., but I don't buy the east coast/west coast argument.

  • Anonymous says:

    almost by definition, the fact that you are a PI now means the smart money bets you were a better-than-average postdoc. Very likely you had more motivation, intellectual curiosity and, yes, better experimental hands than the average bear. Which means that on average, postdocs that come into your lab are going to fall short of the standard of you!
    You gotta be kidding...the fact taht you are a PI now means that you got lucky, came from the right circles, knew the right people, were good at schmoozing, did the "right" type of research topic... rarely does it correlate to being scientifically/intellectually superior to the vast number of postdocs who did not become PIs.

  • SS says:

    I don't wanna say this...I really don't. Having read around on science blogs written by the chem/bio crowd, I am beginning to lose respect for you folks. Seriously, if you think there can be an actual debate between whether someone with a PhD or a BS can make a better contribution to your RESEARCH laboratory, I have to say you are just a bunch of dumbfucks...all of you and your degrees are not worth the paper they are printed on. Serously, the intelligence gap between the avg PhD and the avg BS is that insignificant to your research that it's a mere question of risk management? Seems to me then that there isn't such a gap at all then.

  • TechsKickA$$ says:

    I am a career tech and damn proud of it. My first job I was str8 out of school with a Baby PI (just got his lab). He taught me everything, and I was with him for 14 years. IMO, there are 3 kinds of techs.
    1) Total Dumb a$$ - easily taken care of when it is realized.
    2) Techs that need explicit instructions - good and vital to a lab.
    3) Techs that can do everything- from designing experiments to drafting a paper - I think this may be genetic.
    I am the 3rd type, but I certainly didn't start that way. Just like Graduate students, we have to grow into this role and not every technician (nor graduate student) will be able to accomplish this.
    I do have to agree with SS...some of you are pretentious f^@ks. I have seen some stupid m-fing post-docs just as I have seen the same in techs. Oh, and lets not forget the total bat sh!t crazy PI's that populate the landscape.

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